December's holiday social situations no doubt reinforced your conviction that networking is indispensible these days. In fact, networking is one of the most productive ways to create or discover new opportunities for your business, career or personal life. Here are what I see as some clear and positive networking trends for 2011.
- Quality over quantity. More and more, people are being encouraged to focus on getting to know other people at an event and finding out what their current needs might be, instead of focusing on their own needs. People are also starting to recognize that while the person they are speaking with might not be the person they want to partner with, that person's neighbor might just be the person they're looking for. If you take the time to get to know the person sitting across from you and eventually meet for coffee, you might learn about that person's neighbor and be offered an introduction without needing to ask for one. By that coffee meeting, the other person will have likely learned a lot more about you, too, and will know what connotes a good prospect or partner for your business. Thanks to the law of reciprocity, you'll be able to do the same for her, and both of you will benefit.
- People admitting they could use help. I've noticed that people are becoming less afraid to tell you what they need help with. At one recent gathering, when I asked a few people directly what they needed help with, they said they were "all good." Once I probed a little deeper and asked what they were working on or what they wanted more of in their life, it all came pouring out. My advice is to go to events with the intention of offering whatever help (usually resources, ideas, knowledge or contacts) you can. But also be prepared to share what it is you're looking for in your life or business. Most people want to participate in the exchange part of networking.
- Everyone has a business card. Some people have two. You can't attend an event these days without receiving a card from almost everyone you meet. But you might not see that second card unless you cross the threshold from business-only talk to learning more about the person and her passions beyond the 9-to-5 world. I recently met a woman who was in the early stages of launching a personal concierge service and offered her a new idea for finding prospective clients. But we really began to connect when I suggested she speak to the venue host about participating in a showcase event at the venue to sell her beautiful handmade jewelry. I learned about her jewelry not by asking about the amazing piece she was wearing around her neck (which can be a good way to continue the conversation once you get past the pleasantries), but when I asked her what she did for fun when she wasn't working. That's when her eyes lighted up and she gave me her second card, which is what prompted me to introduce her to the venue host. (Update: The jewelry designer showcased her jewelry at the holiday party held by the venue host.)
- Companies will sponsor or host events for groups. We're all catching on that times are tough, and if businesses don't help and support each other, all of us are sunk. A good example of this is the idea behind American Express OPEN's Small Business Saturday program, held the Saturday after Thanksgiving his year. The program helped boost small retailers' sales for the day an estimated 27 percent over last year's, American Express OPEN reported. Associating the American Express brand with such a program was smart, and this brand association and collaboration trend looks to be strong in 2011. I was able to get a wine sponsor for a Pay It Forward party and networking event I recently hosted. A contact wanted to be associated with something that offered social capital for a client's brand. The company was eager to participate as a sponsor and came through with a spectacular selection of wine; it received some great PR and brand awareness in return.
- Companies will become more mindful of their social capital. We are all starting to be hyper aware of how easy it is to tarnish our good social capital by writing a snarky comment on someone's status update or blog post -- and how that can come back to bite us. Sharing quality links and helpful content are what increase your social capital and attract more people to you or your business today. Even Hootsuite displays a "Klout" score that indicates how successful a person is at engaging his or her audience online and how big an impact the individual's messages have on people. This will only get more important as people start to figure out how to associate value to online activity that inspires, enlightens or entertains.
- More recognition that networking is a great way to reinforce your personal brand. As an entrepreneur and professional in your industry, you undoubtedly recognize that a big part of your job is to be an ambassador for your company and your personal brand -- both inside and outside the office. It's important for you to think about how you want people to perceive you within your field, the community in which you live -- and even online. Are you known for being responsive, smart, insightful, resourceful, creative, persuasive, a branding expert or well-connected? A savvy entrepreneur gets clear on the reputation and values she wants to cultivate and then works hard to demonstrate them every day.