Business Networking: The Ultimate Guide

Check out our comprehensive guide on business networking, including where to find the right leads and turn them into interested prospects.

Business networking is a lead generation and relationship building strategy in which you attend targeted events and/or join professional groups to form connections with people who can become warm prospects. Typically, this strategy is used by B2B salespeople or B2C sellers with big-ticket items and/or long sales cycles. Business networking is traditionally done through in-person events, but it can also be done online.

How Does Business Networking Work?

In business networking, sales reps, sales managers, and business owners attend events with the goal of generating qualified prospects. When attending an event, introduce yourself to potential leads and learn about their pain points so you can qualify them for nurturing. Sometimes, you can qualify and pitch to them on the spot, but more commonly you'll collect their contact information and qualify them via a discovery call later.

Common business networking events include in-person events such as trade shows, conferences, and networking groups or meetups, but can also include virtual options such as online conferences or online networking groups. Depending on the event you attend, some salespeople will hand out physical or digital materials like business cards or marketing collateral.

For some professionals, networking might seem too nerve-racking to try. Similar to call reluctance, this feeling stems from nerves, the possibility of rejection, and fear, but you can overcome it by following the tips in our call reluctance article and increasing your success at networking events. The more leads you attract, the more confident you'll feel while networking.

When you get it right, business networking offers many benefits, including improving your confidence and visibility and developing warm relationships. Not every person you meet will be a fit, but speaking with new people may also lead to referrals within their network. In addition to its benefits, however, networking can be time consuming and costly, so consider the resources required, plus your goals, to ensure that it's right for you, and also learn how to do it well.

Types of Business Networking Events

There are many business networking events to attend, from online-only events to small local meetups to large national conferences. To target the right events for your networking efforts, check out the main types below, with detail on how to find relevant gatherings:

Trade Shows

Industry Conferences

Networking Groups

Local Meetups

Online Groups & Events

Trade shows are some of the best events possible for a business owner or sales professional who is solely focused on approaching potential leads. Trade shows are events where different companies come together and show off their products for prospective customers. Attendees at the trade show are either selling their product or looking for things to buy.

So, B2C salespeople will be pitching primarily to attendees as part of a booth. B2B sellers can show up as attendees or set up a booth, and they’ll probably want to network with other booths. You can find trade shows to attend on sites like 10Times that organize them by industry to make it easy and quick to find some in your area.

10Times trade shows for business networking

Conferences are industry-specific events that get businesses in their industry together to discuss news and innovation. There are some that have consumer attendees, but usually conferences are made up of business professionals in the given niche, making them a great place to network with other businesses to create valuable connections and relationships.

Since conferences can be business-only or consumer-inclusive, the type of salesperson they serve best depends on the conference you pick. There are conferences for everybody, and you can find them on 10Times, as well, or on sites like AllConferences.com. B2B sellers will benefit more from the business-only conferences, whereas B2C sellers will typically go to the consumer-attended events.

AllConferences.com Business Networking Conferences

Business networking groups can be informal or formal groups that coordinate networking events for its members. Informal groups include ones like community-led nonprofit organizations, while formal groups typically represent associations like your Chamber of Commerce or Business Networking International (BNI) chapter.

Check out Hourly's article on business networking groups to learn about the main types of groups, how to find ones you can join, and how to get the most value out of them.

BNI find a local chapter for business networking

These meetups are networking events that take place on a smaller scale. Many companies will have meetups with similar businesses, potential big-ticket leads, or even community members in order to network. Alternatively, you can join a BNI or Meetup group to get more involved with businesses in your community. These groups will often set up weekly or monthly meetings between business professionals looking for connections.

These can work well for any sales professional, since they can be whatever you want them to be. You can attend a meetup with local enthusiasts within your industry to generate leads, or one full of local business owners in order to build business connections.

Meetup.com business networking events

While in-person networking events are still popular, online networking is becoming prevalent, as well. Below are a few places you can make connections online:

  • Lunchclub: A social platform that uses AI to connect you with like-minded leads so you can plan a video call with them.
  • Fishbowl: An app that allows you to join and chat with groups of professionals that could be a good fit for your product or service.
  • LinkedIn Groups: A feature offered on the LinkedIn platform that helps you find business networking groups to join.

Other social media platforms such as Facebook also have groups that help you find the right people to speak with so you can keep in touch with them outside of the groups through direct messages, emails, and virtual conferencing. Start with the two platforms above plus LinkedIn, then add in any social media platforms that make sense for your business.

LinkedIn Business Networking Groups

Next, let's look at the steps to generate leads at these events, including how to choose the specific events that will bring you the best results.

How to Generate Leads via Business Networking

Now, it’s time to focus on the lead generation process in the context of business networking. Taking the proper steps will ensure that you maximize your return on the time investment of networking, as it can feel like a lot of upfront work at first. But by taking the following steps, business networking can become one of the most valuable strategies you’ve ever used:

  1. Define Your Ideal Customer: Figure out your target audience, who is most likely to purchase your product.
  2. Identify the Right Events to Attend: Consider your ideal customer and business goals to decide which events will best help you meet them.
  3. Practice Your Sales Pitch: Get some repetitions in at home to make sure you put your best foot forward on game day. 
  4. Bring the Right Takeaway Materials: Make sure you have all the physical or digital materials you need for your chosen networking event.
  5. Make Connections and Gather Contact Info: Meet people, converse with them, and get their contact information.
  6. Follow Up With Your Leads: Reach out to interested leads after the event to plan a longer conversation during which you can qualify and start to nurture them.

Let’s dive into the details on each of these steps to get a deeper look at business networking.

1. Define Your Ideal Customer

Before anything else, you need to figure out who your market is. The goal is to identify demographics and psychographics in order to create a buyer persona. Hammering out who your customer is, how old they are, what they do for a living, and where they live is paramount to starting any variety of lead generation strategy.

Here are some of the demographic questions to answer when nailing down your ideal customer:

  • Type of Customer: Do you sell to businesses (B2B) or customers (B2C)?
  • Age: How old are your customers?
  • Location: Where are they typically located?
  • Habits: Where do they tend to shop, and how do they like to buy (online, in person)?
  • Other Providers: What are some parallel markets in which they might shop?

All of these questions are vital when deciding where to network and how to tailor your pitch to the people you meet. As you dive deeper into the demographic factors and purchasing habits of your target customer, you’ll have more information to inform your choices. Try using HubSpot’s Make My Persona tool to simplify the process of defining your buyer persona.

2. Identify the Right Events to Attend

Now that you have some direction, you’ll need to figure out where you’re going to network. As stated before, your target demo will be one of the factors that decides the right events for your business, but you also must consider your goals as a business. As a reminder, the primary types of networking events you’ll run into are:

  • Trade Shows: Conventions focused on showcasing multiple businesses in a similar industry; they’re great for B2C or B2B salespeople who want to sell and network at once. Check websites like 10Times for a searchable database.
  • Conferences: Events focused on bringing multiple businesses in the same industry together to discuss news and innovation within that industry; they’re great for B2B salespeople looking for connections. Sites like 10Times will also have listings.
  • Business Networking Groups: Largely professional associations hosting events for its members, especially B2B sellers. Check out places like your Chamber of Commerce or BNI chapter to find ones that are right for you.
  • Local Meetups: General term for any privately organized events between business professionals who are specifically looking to network with each other in a less formal way. Check out resources like BNI or Meetup for localized events.
  • Online Groups & Events: Virtual communities on websites, apps, and social media platforms that network directly online and meet with fellow members virtually, such as on Zoom. Start with Lunchclub, Fishbowl, and LinkedIn groups.

Each event serves a different purpose and changes the types of attendees you’ll find. Trade shows will have more customers and small business owners, conferences will have more business professionals and executives, and associations or local meetups have an infinite variety wherein you can pick and choose with whom you’re networking.

Pro Tip:

If you're located in a rural area where conferences and trade shows are uncommon, online events can be a good fit. Meet and greets are also a great way to generate leads and network within a smaller community; if you’re the one to plan it, you’ll get a hefty boost in visibility among the other businesses in your community.

3. Practice Your Networking Sales Pitch

Before you head off to your first networking event, you’ll want to tune up your sales pitch at home. Because you're dealing with face-to-face leads, they’ll be closer to warm than in most situations, meaning that you should create a specific networking event sales pitch. So, write a script, recite it to yourself to get a feel for it, then practice it with some friends or coworkers to prepare for rebuttals.

When creating a networking sales pitch, start with your normal pitch as a baseline. You can also take ideas from your cold call script or sales call script if you have them so you don't have to start from scratch. Then, consider the following to make it unique to business networking:

  1. Spend More Time on the Intro: Set you and your company apart from the other attendees by summarizing your mission.
  2. Include a Comprehensive Pitch: Attendees are at a business event, so you can dive a little deeper than you normally would, knowing that they are prepared to talk business.
  3. Account for Demonstration: If you’re at a trade show selling a product, you’ll probably have some sort of demo to account for in your pitch.
  4. Include a Strong Call-to-Action: It can get easy to lose yourself in small talk at these events; make sure you give specific direction.

Keeping these in mind, you should be able to craft a solid script for your networking events. The script will be vital in ensuring a consistent pitch with every prospect and making sure that you don’t miss any takeaways you want your leads to leave with. You don’t want to waste the opportunity with leads that are typically more open to talking business than your usual prospect.

Also, make sure you use your networking script only when it comes time to pitch the product. At networking events (trade shows being a potential exception), it’s usually best to start a more casual conversation before diving into business. Say hi, ask a few questions, and crack a few jokes. Then, you can get into your script.

bookmarks

Additional Reading:

For more information on creating a networking sales pitch, check out our article on how to create and deliver an effective sales pitch. Use it as a guide for creating a unique pitch that will resonate with your in-person leads.

4. Bring the Right Takeaway Materials

After deciding where to go and what to say, make sure you have all the proper tools to deliver on your plans. No matter what kind of networking event you go to, there are some materials you will want to keep handy for attendees that you meet to take home or view on the spot. Similar to the second step, your needs here will depend on the event you’re attending.

Conferences & Meetups

For these types of events, you’ll typically only bring materials to gather and share contact information. While this can be done on your business phone, it’s always best to carry physical materials with contact information as well as product or service info.

Bring these basic materials to share your contact and product information:

  • Business Card: Your card listing your name, title, company, email address, and phone number. Consider writing your cell number on the card for the most promising leads.
  • Pamphlets or Brochures: Marketing material that describes your company or product.
  • Pen and Small Notebook: A way to jot something down and give it to a lead if necessary.

While not all materials are necessary for all events, business cards are a must at any networking event. It’s the easiest way to make sure that people have your contact info, and the process of sharing it doesn’t take too much time away from a good conversation.

Trade Shows

If you’re at a trade show, you’ll probably want some tools for product demonstrations. These can take a few different forms, depending on whether or not your product is something you can physically demonstrate. If not, you can just bring some pamphlets that illustrate some of the main benefits of your product. 

If you're running a booth, some trade-show-specific materials include:

  • Branded Tablecloth: A tablecloth with your logo on it to help attendees notice and remember you.
  • Branded Sign: An attractive sign picturing your company logo.
  • Demo Products: Examples of your product or props for demonstration.
  • Product Literature: Pamphlets or brochures explaining your product and company.
  • Sign-up Sheet: A list where interested leads can provide their contact information.

In addition to these more specific items, you’ll want to have everything handy that we covered for conferences and meetups. It’s always good to have sharable takeaway materials to hand out to people who are hesitant to give their own contact information.

Trade Show Sample
Example trade show booth

Online Groups & Events

When you speak with a fellow member of an online business networking group or a fellow attendee of a virtual event, you won't have the opportunity to hand them printed materials or show them your product in person. However, you should have virtual resources available to send to any leads who would benefit from them.

Specifically, consider keeping the following in an easily accessible place on your computer:

  • Video Demos: A brief, informative video of your product or service that allows the lead to see it in action.
  • Virtual Marketing Materials: PDF versions of the materials you'd print out and bring to an in-person event.
  • Testimonials or Case Studies: A document or webpage that shows real success stories from current or past customers.

When you create these resources, you can add them to a landing page on your website or keep the files on your computer. The former takes more work initially but allows you to send a single link to interested leads you meet online, while the latter allows you to pick and choose what you send to them, tailoring your response and avoiding overwhelming them with information.

Pro Tip:

Even if you attend an in-person event, have electronic materials available that you can show a lead on your phone and email to them quickly. You can also keep an online form handy on your phone to easily gather contact info.

5. Make Connections & Gather Contact Info

All the preparation is done, and now it's time to meet with people and gather their contact information. You’ve already decided broadly who you’re trying to speak with, and you have your materials ready, so now you should meet, pitch, and try to set up a meeting with them. 

Remember these steps when starting in-person or online professional conversations:

  1. Open With a Professional Compliment: Something simple like “Hey, I like your shoes!” is a kind, respectful way to start a conversation at a professional event.
  2. Introduce Yourself: Let them know who you are and what business you represent.
  3. Ask a Few Prospecting Questions: Ask them why they are there and what their objective is for the evening. 
  4. Use Your Takeaway Materials in Your Call-to-Action: Give them your card and offer to take down their number or email to set up an appointment later on. Or close then and there if you’re direct selling at a trade show.

This simple four-step process will get you in the door with any type of lead, build rapport, and give you a good chance of getting their contact info. Improvise depending on the lead, as it's important to meet them where they are. If your lead is engaging in conversation with you before you get to ask your questions, focus on what they're saying and get a good conversation going.

bookmarks

Additional Reading:

Again, if you're feeling some hesitation putting yourself out there and speaking with strangers face-to-face, check out our article on call reluctance. While it's specific to the reluctance felt when cold calling, many of the principles for overcoming your resistance are applicable to in-person situations as well.

6. Follow Up With Your Leads

After you meet an interested lead and add their contact information to your CRM software, the final step is to follow up with them as quickly as possible. This will help keep the momentum you've created and ensure they remember you when you reach out. Below are the steps to follow up:

  1. Send a Sales Email: Within 24 hours of meeting the lead, send a sales email to schedule a follow-up meeting so you can further qualify them and keep building the relationship.
  2. Hold a Discovery Call: Qualify the lead by asking them preplanned questions on a discovery call. If you sufficiently qualified them during your first conversation, you may be able to skip this step.
  3. Nurture the Lead: Move the lead into the lead nurturing phase of your sales funnel and start moving them toward a close.
  4. Make a Sales Call: As you nurture your lead, decide when it's time to officially pitch to them, and make a sales call to tailor your product or service to their needs and make the ask.

Following up with your interested leads in the right way is key to getting the most out of the effort you put into business networking. Get in touch with everyone you meet as soon as possible. Even if you speak with a new contact at an event and you discover right then that they're not a fit, send them a quick email the next day to let them know it was great speaking with them about a certain topic and you'd love to stay in touch. This small effort could eventually lead to a referral.

5 Benefits of Business Networking

Now that you know how to network, we’ll go into detail on how it can benefit your business. Each of the five major benefits extends far past the meetings you have and the leads you generate. Let’s go over exactly how they benefit you now and how they’ll make you a better salesperson in the long run.

Fine Tune Your Pitch

Business networking involves a lot of face-to-face pitching. As a result, you’ll end up with a more fleshed-out pitching process. Experience breeds innovation, and real-world practice like this helps identify weak points.

Some of the ways that networking will improve your pitch are as follows:

  • Objection Handling: You’ll hear more objections and learn how to deal with them.
  • Valuable Feedback: You’ll have the chance to ask for feedback from other experienced sales professionals.
  • Pitch Refinement: You’ll get more practice with your pitch, and you’ll get a better idea of where you can speed it up or make it more interesting.

The last of these is the truly unique benefit here. While B2B salespeople get on the phone with business operators quite often, it’s rare that they end up in contact with sales staff at those businesses when selling over the phone or email. So, networking events provide new, refreshing angles on your pitch, as you’ll be able to talk shop with other networkers.

Improve Your Confidence

As your pitch is refined, your confidence in delivering it will improve. Not only is your pitch getting better at this point, but you’re getting more practiced at giving it. This is invaluable, since your pitch affects every aspect of lead generation. A confident pitch will increase your conversion in person, over the phone, and over email or direct message.

Increase Your Visibility

Every aspect of business marketing is focused on one primary goal: increasing your visibility with your target audience. Networking can accomplish this by growing your web of personal connections within your industry.

Below are the people you’ll meet at networking events and why you should connect with them:

  • Fellow Sales Professionals: These folks can provide priceless tips and feedback on your pitch, lead generation strategies, and personal branding.
  • Business Owners: Connecting with business owners can provide new employment opportunities, valuable tips and feedback, and the possibility of referral agreements.
  • Potential Leads: These can become customers with the help of a good pitch.

Market visibility obviously includes more than just potential leads, and becoming a well-known figure through networking can be a great way to generate a steady stream of leads through referrals and cooperation with other businesses. That brings us to our next point.

Generate Referrals for New Leads

This sounds complicated, but the concept is simple: Many of the people you speak with at networking events won’t be interested but can still refer you to their friends, family, and business partners. This means that you don’t even have to succeed with the original lead in order to generate referrals.

While this kind of thing rarely happens over the phone or email, meeting you in person may convince those who aren’t in your market to recommend you to people they know. Networking events give you more time to connect with people in a deeper way. This is what will separate you from the other sales professionals that contact these people in their day-to-day lives.

Develop Personal Relationships

The final benefit is the personal relationships that you develop when networking. Not only can these connections make your professional life more enjoyable, but they can also make it much more profitable. Personal relationships are easily the best part of business networking.

All of the other benefits listed here are reliant on this one. In order to get referrals, feedback, and cooperation with other businesses, you really need to take the time and invest in developing these deeper personal connections with those that you meet. Other sales prospecting methods like cold canvassing, calling, and emailing just don’t give you the same opportunity to make these connections, so make this your primary goal when networking.

Pro Tip:

Developing personal relationships often goes beyond the networking event. Be open to freeing up time to go out with your connections and get to know them, so long as everything stays professional.

Top 7 Business Networking Tips

We’ve laid out the fundamentals and benefits for you, but there are some finer details worth noting. We want to keep you as prepared as possible, so below are top business networking tips to help push you even closer to success in business networking.

Keep Your LinkedIn Profile Up to Date

One of the first things business professionals tend to do with a new contact is check their LinkedIn. While it can be tiresome at times, it’s important to at least keep up-to-date connections so that you seem like a worthwhile person to connect with. Professional relationships are give and take, and your LinkedIn shows what you have to offer.

Approach With Confidence

Approaching somebody can seem scary, and being approached by somebody who is too nervous can be off-putting. So, develop your approach and ensure that you come off as confident in yourself and your product. Try practicing your approach with people you know, starting the conversation with a (professional) joke, and visualizing a confident approach before walking up.

By staying prepared, keeping things light, and visualizing a successful encounter, you'll calm yourself down and keep a consistent approach. In the end, it comes down to getting your reps in. So, take a deep breath, count to three, and do it.

Get People Talking About What They Want

Ask questions that get your counterpart to communicate their goals. When you start speaking with a new lead, show interest in them before talking about yourself by asking them why they're at the event and what they're hoping to get out of it, as well as what they're working on at the moment. This is a great way to reveal their goals and pain points and then relate them to what you do and how you can help.

Deliver Information Casually

When you’re communicating with new contacts, do so effectively, especially when talking about your product or service. To deliver your information in a casual, relatable way, start the conversation with a few questions (e.g., where they work, what they like about their job), encourage them to elaborate, and connect your product to their answers to pique their interest in working with you.

These are the fundamental steps in making sure a prospect feels heard and can easily relate to you and your product. While they won’t always give you the most useful information, just referencing what they said in a joke along the way can be enough to make product info that you share more consumable.

Leave With a Memorable Call-to-Action

Calls-to-action can feel a little forward in person, but remember what an important part of pitching it is. Delivering a strong call-to-action without coming off pushy is a key skill in networking.

Try “It’s been great talking to you, and I’d love to share more about us with you. Can we set up a call this week?”, “Thanks for checking out our booth and listening to my product spiel. Can we get you signed up for more info?”, and “I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me. Let’s set up a call to talk business.”

While it would be better to get more specific, these are broad ways to get the job done. Feel free to tweak them to make them more personal to your leads.

Create Reasons to Contact Connections

Once you’ve made some personal ties with people, keep an eye out for stories related to your industry that might interest them. When you find one, send it over and spark a conversation. This will build rapport and facilitate more information sharing between you two, and it will keep you in touch so reaching out doesn’t seem out of the blue.

Offer Help Unrelated to Your Product or Service

One of the best ways to inspire a new lead to trust you is by offering them help that won't necessarily make you or your business money. At networking events, it's easy to approach a fellow attendee and start pitching to them, but think outside the box whenever possible and try to come up with ideas that can solve pain points that your business doesn't specialize in.

For example, if the lead mentions that they've been trying to get their child into a certain daycare and you have a connection, offer to make an introduction. This will build your relationship more quickly and make them more open to working with you.

Keep these tips and mind as you execute all the steps involved in business networking, and you'll find even greater success. For more information on the top networking tips, check out our roundup of the best business networking tips from sales experts.

Bottom Line: Business Networking

At this point, you should have a solid handle on your goals when networking for lead generation. We’ve covered where to go, what to bring, and how to navigate this social atmosphere. If you follow the steps we’ve laid out and keep all of our tips in mind, you should be well on your way to developing an extensive network of professionals in your industry.

If you’d like to further optimize your networking efforts for effective lead generation, check out our list of the best business networking statistics to help.

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