The Freelancer’s Guide to Networking in Person
You can find thousands of guides full of recommendations on how to excel on different online networking platforms. But to succeed as a freelancer, you need to have some old school skills as well.
Being able to network effectively in person can bring you great clients, some of whom may even be easier to work with because you know them better than someone who hired you online.
Make a Plan to Get Out
It’s easy to spend every hour of your day glued to your computer. In order to successfully network in person, however, you actually have to go out and meet people.
Try setting minimum expectations for yourself: attending one event each month or introducing yourself to a new person each week.
If networking events aren’t your thing, that’s fine. You can meet with people one on one or create other situations you’re more comfortable with. The important thing is to make a habit of regularly meeting new people, even if you’re just chatting up the person sitting next to you in the coffee shop.
Try setting minimum expectations for yourself: attending one event each month or introducing yourself to a new person each week. Start small, because it’s important to handle each new connection carefully — you want to build relationships with these individuals, rather than just collect a huge stack of business cards. You can always go out of your way to meet more people if you feel that you’re not moving fast enough.
It’s often easier to build the habit of meeting new people before trying to focus in on specific types of connections. You’ll eventually want to focus primarily on building a network that will bring you more freelancing opportunities. But if you aren’t already comfortable with networking in person, build up to that goal.
Targeting Your Connections
Your time is valuable. You don’t want to spend tons of time having coffee with people who aren’t ever going to send business your way.
That means narrowing your focus when deciding who you will reach out to and what events you’ll choose to attend. If you work with a very specific niche, you need to be attending events where the type of prospective client you want to work with will actually be, as well as reaching out to members of that industry or niche to introduce yourself.
If you work with a very specific niche, you need to be attending events where the type of prospective client you want to work with will actually be, as well as reaching out to members of that industry or niche to introduce yourself.
Study your existing clients. Find out what trade groups or industry associations are already in place. Most organizations along those lines welcome members or attendees who serve the industry, rather than are a part of it directly.
There are also general business networking groups in many areas — you’ll meet a broader selection of people at such events. While conferences probably won’t be an every-month element of your networking goals, you can use similar criteria to choose a conference or two that will help you connect with the right people.
Sometimes, you may be able to identify specific individuals who you want to connect with, such as an ideal client. It’s not out of the question to maintain a list of such people and to reach out to them as you can. You can choose events that will help you meet people on your list, as well — if that person is speaking or sponsoring an event, make attending a priority.
There is a counterpoint worth considering, though: our networking efforts always have a certain element of serendipity about them. Just because someone isn’t a good fit for your business today doesn’t mean that she couldn’t mention you to a friend or have something down the line for you, perhaps after a job change or two.
While you may not prioritize people who aren’t immediately a good fit for what you’re trying to accomplish, maintain those connections to the extent you can. You never know who is going to turn into your good luck charm.
Focus on Following Up
While you need to be attentive and charming in all of your networking conversations, you need to pay special attention to ensuring that you’ll have a good reason to follow up after that initial talk. Even if you just offer to send along the link to a great blog post you just read, you’ll have laid the groundwork for a new contact to expect an email from you.
By making a point to discuss follow up, even just briefly, you’ve given your new contact a reason to look for your name. You’ve also gotten implicit permission to contact them in the future — something that can be crucial to staying out of the spam folder if you’re contacting someone that is busy.
Follow up options can go far beyond just sending along a link, though, if you think about how you want to connect with certain types of people in advance.
- A white paper or report: If part of your sales process includes providing free resources for prospective clients, you probably already have something you can offer to a new contact.
- A blog or a newsletter: When you regularly write about topics of interest to your prospective clients, you can wind up with an incredible set of resources to point them to.
- A portfolio or samples: While a new connection may be nowhere near ready to embark on a new project, you can still give her ideas of the benefits you can offer, by showing what you’ve done in the past.
- An introduction: Offering to introduce a new contact to someone else can help build out your network even faster. A referral to someone you work with can be particularly great
- Non-business information: Nothing says that you only can send along information relevant to business. Suggesting a great babysitter or fantastic restaurant can help cement a new connection quickly.
In your conversation, you want to line up your follow up opportunity, as well as make sure you get your new connection’s contact details. It’s up to you whether you want to make a note about how to follow up while you’re in front of your new contact — some people really get upset when you write on their business cards, it turns out — but get a note down as soon after the conversation as you possibly can. Especially if you’re out at an event, you’re not going to remember every detail of each conversation. Writing down your next step is crucial, although not quite as important as actually completing your follow up.
Actually Follow Up
Networking events, conferences and even face-to-face meetings can be exhausting. You can’t assume that you’ll always be able to go straight home and send out your follow-up emails immediately. That makes it necessary to put a follow up process in place — a standard workflow that you can follow every time you know you need to follow up with someone.
Keep contact information in a standard place: When you bring home business cards and notes, they should always wind up in the same spot, so that you can make sure that they all make it into whatever contact management system you use.
That could mean putting them in a pile on your desk, scanning them to a specific folder or something else, provided you’ll be able to easily find the information again. If you can, send your follow up whenever you add those individuals to your address book in the first place.
Add the specifics to your task list: If you keep any sort of task list, adding your follow up tasks to it makes sense, particularly if you’ll need to pull anything together before you send out that next email.
Have a clear plan for dealing with business cards after they’ve been digitized: I do know some business owners who keep every card that makes it into their hands. If you’re networking regularly, you could wind up with quite a pile, however. It makes more sense to have a system that allows you to double check that you’ve gotten all the details and then you can dispose of the actual paper. There are plenty of scanning services that will actually handle such tasks for you, if you find it too time-consuming.
Keep On Networking
You’re probably going to start bumping up against your own comfort zone pretty quickly if you don’t do a lot of networking already. Take things slow as you get used to the process of going up to strangers and introducing yourself.
But you do need to keep testing those boundaries. The more comfortable you can become in networking situations, the better you’ll be able to connect with new people — you’ll come off as confident and someone great to work with. So make a point of trying new things and pushing a little harder on a regular basis. It will pay off for your freelance business in the long run.