The most common response I get is that Networking is all about making contacts. However, this quickly becomes a far too narrow expectation. Consider what your ultimate hope and expectation is of those connections. Are you looking for those connections to offer you their knowledge and expertise? Are you looking for them to 'buy' your products or services? Are you looking for them to refer you to their contacts and connections? If your answer is yes, then you must consider the need to make them more than merely a 'contact', they need to become a 'friend'.
Certainly they don't need to become your best friend or godparent to your children, but they do need to become someone with more of a connection to you than just a card in their pocket. Building an effective network is about more than extending your business card collection, it is about establishing a network of individuals that have a solid base and connection to you. The true magic is that you can build these connections through your networking events, you just have to understand what you are looking to build, and how to do it.
Business card collectors have a tendency to attend different networking events constantly, parachuting in, working the crowd and then heading on to the next event. They rarely or infrequently attend the same event twice. Certainly, attending different events in the beginning is a smart way to identify which are the 'right' events for you. Whether looking to identify potential customers or to extend your network of contacts in your specific field, you need to find out which events they typically go to. This might take a little trial and error to start but, once you've found the right events for you and your needs, you keep going.
According to Jack Schafer, in his book The Like Switch, there is a very definitive Friendship Formula, one which the FBI perfected as a means of recruiting spies. Yes, cool foundation, but the point is that it will work for your purposes also. There are four basic building blocks to the formula:
Friendship = Proximity + Frequency + Duration + IntensityProximity - is the distance between you and the other party, your exposure to them over time. This means that there is a strong benefit to being seen at a specific networking event consistently each month. Sharing the same physical space with someone else makes you more attractive to them, establishing a connection based on commonality.
Frequency - is the number of contacts you have with someone over time. Popping into a networking event, never to show again, is all about you. Attending the same event consistently establishes a commitment to forming 'real' connections that will resonate with those looking to do the same. Simply 'seeing' you at the event each month breeds familiarity and helps to establish trust, even if they haven't had the opportunity to speak with you yet.
Duration - is the length of time spent with someone over time. We typically spend more time with people we like and engaged in activities we enjoy. Therefore, the more time that someone spends with you, the greater the bond that is established. This is not just measured by the minutes you are in direct conversation. Shared experiences count. Therefore, simply seeing your face a number of times over the course of an evening registers as a 'period' of time you have invested similarly and helps to build that sense of familiarity.
Intensity - refers to how strongly you are able to satisfy another person's needs (psychological or physical) through your verbal or nonverbal behaviours. Those who attend a networking event solely to pass out their cards are not focused on meeting the needs of others, they are focused on having their needs met. Although offering your services to help alleviate someone else's pain point is a desirable way to satisfy someone's needs, recognise that you typically should look to build to this by subtly satisfying other needs first, in smaller less direct ways. Providing them with an introduction to someone else that could be of service to them, or that may prove to be a valuable connection for them is one such way. However, simply smiling across the room at someone who looks disconnected or uncomfortable can work to establish a sense of connection and gratitude that begins the formation of a relationship even before being introduced. By satisfying non-work related needs first you help to create the belief that you are more likely to satisfy their work needs too.
Strong networks are not determined by the number of contacts you have, but by the quality of the relationship. Learning to 'make new friends' may prove to be one of the best lessons we can bring forward from the playgrounds of our childhood to help us be successful in our business careers. As with all things though, there is a science to it that can help those of us that are a little less naturally extroverted to create the business relationships that will serve us in building our businesses and careers.
For those that would like to delve a little deeper into how the FBI has used this formula to build their network of spies, I offer the link to the book below. Quite honestly, it is a fascinating read on its own as the author offers up examples of how they used the various steps and principles. However, on a lesser scale, it also has strong business applications for you.