Saturday, May 31, 2008

Social Networking and the US Presidential Primaries: How Barack Obama is changing the face of democracy using the net.

Last year I discussed how politicians were beginning to embrace social networks to get their message across and engage with younger voters. I looked at one of the key exponents of this new approach, Barack Obama, and how he has developed a social network to get people involved with his campaign, spread the message and encourage others to join in.

As the Democratic Primary campaign has rumbled on it has become more and more clear how vital this social networking approach has been to Obama's widely-predicted victory. Despite a clear handicap from the beginning based on previous US political campaigns, Obama couldn't hope to raise anywhere near the same level of funding as Hillary Clinton from tradition sources, he has raised funds far in excess of Clinton, who had to dig into her own pockets at one point to keep her campaign on the road.

The Sunday Times picked up on this last week. In his article, Obama is master of the new Facebook politics, Andrew Sullivan talked about "a candidate who is primed to take advantage of web power and a generation used to relating, thinking, talking and meeting online."

Sullivan describes how John McCain's 2002 campaign finance law, restricting the maximum legal amount of any individual donation, allowed Obama to overtake Clinton by bringing in over one million small donors, rather than a few big financiers. 94% of Obama's $31m donations came in sums of $200 or less. Fewer fundraising parties were needed and fewer 'favours' are owed to individuals. Perhaps this is something that will make a huge difference in our own Party system.

Interestingly, one of the key players in developing Obama's website has been Chris Hughes, a former founder of Facebook.

Networking isn't just changing the face of business. If it makes this big an impact on the biggest election process in the world, who can doubt its importance and what else can be achieved?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Making an exhibition of yourself - the exhibitor

Further to my blog last week about making the most of your experience as a visitor to an exhibition, I promised you some top tips if you are taking a stand at a busy show.

Give people some space

When I arrived at Excel for the Business StartUp Show I felt like turning around again and going home. Bearing in mind the target audience for the show, people who, in a lot of cases are new to business, I can imagine many who did.

One bright spark among the exhibitors had the great idea of standing by the entrance with a batch of leaflets to entice new arrivals to visit their stand. Not a bad idea on its own, particularly if you haven't got a premium spot where no-one will be able to avoid you.

The trouble was that, once other stand-holders had seen this tactic, they also thought it was a great idea. By the time we arrived we had to run a gauntlet of people handing us leaflets, special offers and even free waffles before we could get into the exhibition. Anyone who has tried to walk through the busy streets of London in evening rush hour and avoid the people giving away free newspapers will understand what it was like.

To avoid the baying hordes of leaflet-thrusters, we took shelter in an empty stand the study the exhibition map and agree where we wanted to go. One over-enthusiastic exhibitor even followed us there to try to force their promotional literature on us. I perhaps had another suggestion for its use at that stage!

The lesson for exhibitors is to show respect to people visiting exhibitions. When they visit exhibitions, people are shopping. If you go to a shopping centre, you don't necessarily want to go into every store. You browse, see what catches your eye and go in to find out more when you are genuinely interested or curious. The same is the case at an exhibition.

Remember, the person who gets the most visitors to their stand isn't necessarily the winner.

Much like a shop's window display, make sure that your stand is attractive and clearly demonstrates what you have to offer. Your team should be approachable and friendly, ready to attend to anyone who wants to find out more. Hunting down passers-by, pursuing them around the exhibition hall until they listen to your pitch, will not win you friends.

Think about how you like to be treated when you shop. That should give you a strong idea of how to act at an exhibition.

No barriers

There is a balance to strike. You do have to make sure that you are 'out-there' at least to some degree, marketing yourself and making yourself approachable.

When I was with Business Referral Exchange, we ran a number of Business-to-Business exhibitions. One company exhibited with us on a number of occasions but rarely got any new business from the events.

There was a very simple reason for this, the person who looked after the stand created barriers between himself and the attendees. He would set up a table which he covered in literature, put a chair behind the table and would sit there, with his arms folded, for the duration of the event. When people walked past his stand, there was no warm smile and greeting, rather one man, sat behind a table full of leaflets, sat down with arms crossed. How likely would you be to approach him?

At the Business StartUp Show, I visited the stand run by a major national courier company. While I stood there waiting to speak to someone, one of the team on the stand was sat at a table, talking on his mobile phone and typing into his laptop. For someone waiting to be seen, this didn't create the right impression with me. Everyone on the stand should be focused on being approachable to potential customers, any other activity should always take place away from your stand.

It's not a place of day-to-day work, it's not somewhere to sit and have a rest. It's an advertisement for your company.

The personal experience

At a successful business exhibition, you will hopefully capture the data of a lot of people who visit your stand. Many exhibitors will run giveaways and prize draws to encourage people to part with their business cards to build a database for email follow-up.

Don't waste the individual connections you have made with people who have visited your stand and engaged in conversation. The temptation is to throw every business-card you collect into one collection and then mass-mail all of them together. After all, that's the most time-efficient way of following up, surely.

One golden rule of any networking, or indeed any sales approach, is to make every person you interact with feel unique. That doesn't mean that you can't mass-mail if people just drop their business card into a competition draw. However, if you have had a conversation with a genuinely interested party, keep their card seperately.

Keep a record of each conversation your team has with visitors to the stand, together with a note of what you have promised to do to follow up. Ideally, the person who had the conversation should also manage the follow up, even if it's just an email to pass them onto someone else. Maintain that personal connection.

Remember, most of the mass emails you send will be deleted without being read.

For an interesting take on making an exhibition a success from one of the exhibitors at the Business Start Up Show, read Fraser Hay's blog on Ecademy here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Making an exhibition of yourself - the visitor

From 'Grow your own Business' to 'The Franchise Show'; from 'Ideal Business Show' to 'E Commerce 08', there are a wealth of business exhibitions to choose from. I recently attended the Business StartUp Show in London and its success was clear to see. The exhibition hall was buzzing all day, some of the bigger stands had swarms of people around them and queues for the business seminars snaked around the hall.

Among all of the activity there were some wonderful examples of how to, and how not to, network at an exhibition.

Events like this are, naturally, great ground for networking. Whether you are an exhibitor or a visitor, it's an opportunity to grasp with both hands.

In the first of two articles, here are some of my top tips for networking as a visitor to a business exhibition, based on what I observed on the day:

Know what you want to achieve from the day.

With the wealth of stands to visit and seminars to attend, there is only so much you can do. If your aim is to meet a number of new people, or forge contacts with particular companies, you will not best spend your time sitting in seminars.

With the number of seminars available (I think there were six stages at the Business StartUp show, all running sessions throughout the two days), it would be all too easy to jump from speaker to speaker and not actually make new contacts. Select the seminars you most want to attend before the event and make sure you get to the relevant seminar room in plenty of time, many people missed out because the rooms were full.

At Business StartUp, I decided that I wanted to connect with decision makers at national companies. I was looking to talk to businesses with national sales-forces who might be interested in partnering with us on Word of Mouse. That enabled me to focus on which exhibitors I wanted to approach and use my time as efficiently as possible. I only attended one seminar, and that was someone from my network whom I wanted to see speak.

Remember why other people are there.

If you want to connect with other people at an exhibition, be aware of why they are there and respect that.

In my case, I wanted to forge a connection with standholders to potentially do business with them. They, however, were looking to sell their services to attendees at the exhibition. I am sure that they wouldn't have appreciated me hogging their time when other people, potential buyers, were waiting around.

Having seen where the key exhibitors I wanted to speak to were based, I made sure that I only approached them when the stand wasn't too busy. I then asked to speak to a senior manager on the stand. Not only are they more likely to be the person you want to speak to, they also tend to stand back to ensure that everything is going well on the stand, rather than being the first person to speak to visitors.

On introducing myself to the senior manager, I reassured them that I wouldn't take up their time there, explained why I wanted to speak to them and asked for a card so that I could follow up after the exhibition. If they then wanted to speak some more, that was fine, but I remained aware of how busy their stand was and the time I was taking up.

Besides, I'd rather have the conversation with them after the event, one-to-one, when I have their undivided attention, than in a bustling exhibition hall with ever-changing activity on their stand. Wouldn't you?

Don't have lunch, or a cup of coffee on your own

If you're an active networker, you're probably struggling to fit all of the one-to-one meetings you promise people into your diary. Use business exhibitions to kill two birds with one stone and find out who else is going.

Tap into your network and ask who is attending the exhibition. Look through the list of exhibitors and see if there is anyone there whom you are due to meet.

No-one wants to stay on their feet all day at an exhibition. You need a break every now and then. Pre-arrange a couple of meetings for those breaks and meet fellow networkers for a coffee or a spot of lunch.

In the next article I'll look at how to approach exhibitions when you take a stand there.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fashion, Rebels and Angels

This article originally appeared in The National Networker

"I am not looking to set up a big website. Niche networks have always been the case; it's never been about big networks. It's about quality and interest to other members. Fashion is what I do, so it's very topical and it has to be relevant."

Roubi l'Roubi is the London based Haute Couture fashion designer behind, a small, active and popular social network for his friends from the creative sectors, and culture vultures from the business world.

We met through Ecademy, a mass social business network, a couple of years ago, but the future according to Roubi is niche. He now participates less on Ecademy than he did and uses LinkedIn rarely. While Roubi needs to maintain a presence on MySpace as the choice of artists, he is still very selective about its use.

In contrast to these large networks, has 260 members, with a long waiting list and Roubi doesn't want to grow it any further.

Roubi isn't alone in his belief that niche networks represent the future of social and business networking. Social networks are growing at a fast rate in the UK and elsewhere, with publications such as Business Week and The Sunday Times featuring targeted networks. In fact, The Sunday Times ran a report in March 2008 suggesting that a second internet 'boom' is on the way, one that is going to eclipse the last. A common feeling is that any boom will revolve around niche networks.

While the big networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace are gathering the plaudits and grabbing the bulk of the media attention, the growth of small networks has grown dramatically in the last year. Technology such as Ning is making it easy and accessible for people to set up their own social networks and there are many reasons why people do so.

Sean Weafer is the Irish 'r'evolutionary' behind Rebel Island. "The idea came from the fact that more and more people are rebelling against the old institutional values and ways of doing things", said Sean. "In Rebel Island, we are attracting people who are looking for new values and new ways of evolving both professionally and personally."

Sean's drive behind creating a social network is to bring together like-minded people to discuss and debate ideas that evolve individuals, leaders and organisations.

"By creating a social network, we get to synergise and leverage many brains internationally. Before the growth of this technology, it would have been so much more difficult, inefficient and expensive to do so; particularly across time zones." The efficiencies provided by the social web are a key driver for many business-focused networks. People are able to interact, learn, research, get feedback and even enter into new business relationships without leaving their homes or offices.

Scottish accountant Bill Morrow formed his social network, Angels Den, a year ago. Born out of the frustration of not being able to raise funding for his own business venture, Bill founded the site to make the connection between entrepreneurs and financiers so much easier.

"When we were looking for finance, we approached all of the usual brokers, attended countless seminars and breakfast meetings and paid several thousands of pounds for introductions to financiers and got nothing. The more we spoke to entrepreneurs, the more we became aware that it was a common problem", said Bill.

Angels Den, named after a popular BBC television show 'Dragons Den' where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a group of successful business people, charges £499 for an entrepreneur to put their ideas in front of potential investors.

The site offers tips and help to entrepreneurs and business plans are created through a template that has been designed to get the information that angels want to see.

Bill attributes the site's initial success largely to how the network makes life so much easier for both parties. "What it does is maximise the angels' minimal resource - time. Rather than travel all over the country meeting entrepreneurs, they can log in and see the latest initiatives online.

"In the meantime, entrepreneurs have low-cost access to so many more potential investors than they have ever had and valuable feedback that helps them to hone their ideas."

It's not just the social networking that's key, a number of networks recognise the value of the content they provide and the different ways they offer members to engage.

As Rebel Island grows, Sean's plan is to create a 'Rebel Council' of thought leaders and content providers, who deliver regular insights that contribute to the evolutionary journey of the members. Future plans include webinars, special interest groups, Rebel Radio podcasts and Rebel Retreats.

Roubi sees four key components to engaging all members and drawing them back to the network. "Some people are stimulated by reading blogs, others by looking at new products. We also now have an online magazine where people can submit and read articles on a range of relevant subjects", he said.

"It all helps me keep people engaged and reinforces the Roubi brand". These three components, together with the vital, fourth component, offline networking events, helps Roubi keep his name high up in the minds of his network.

Despite the relatively small number of members and their global spread, Roubi still welcomes over 100 members to each of his events, which he sees as a testament to the value of a small, focused membership. It is also where he sees most of the business on the site generated.

"One member told me that it is the only network he is on where he has ever sold anything. I have been amazed at the amount of business that goes on. Anyone who appreciates their time will never be a member of a big network, it's just not sustainable. They all have people who are trying to flog you something, people who are spamming you.

Like Roubi, Bill also feels that, whether niche or not, online networks can't operate in isolation. "Real world events have proven to be just as valuable. We have just run a 'SpeedFunding' event, where 24 entrepreneurs met 24 angels. The entrepreneur had three minutes to pitch the angel and then the angel had one minute to ask questions. They then changed partners.

"The response to this has been phenomenal. There was a tremendous buzz and, following the first event, there were 62 further meetings in the days that followed. At this early stage, 16 out of the 24 entrepreneurs present are hopeful of securing a deal.

"It's a crazy kind of networking. It allows the Angels to meet so many people, not all whom they'd love and like. Similarly, it gives the power back to the entrepreneurs, allowing them to gauge how well they get on with the entrepreneur and whether they'd want them on board."

So, are niche networks the way forward? The three networks above are driven by individuals with a passion for what they are doing and have each, to different levels, produced some success. Their subject focus is key to this, as is the drive of the people behind them. Not all networks will be as successful.

The functionality provided by Ning is quite basic and crude. I am a member of four Ning social networks now but only visit one of them on a regular basis. They look the same, feel the same and have to fight to stand out from the pack. Perhaps it is still the case that the networks with the budget to look and feel different will be the ones that succeed, irrespective of niche.

Having said that, with so many networks fighting for less and less of our free time, it is the networks that draw you back time and again that will keep our attention. The large social networks, which have the critical mass to be talked about and referred to, will continue to grow and help people grow their network base. However, networks where you find people of a like mind, discussing the issues that are relevant to you and connecting you with the people who make a difference in your business, or your life, will perhaps draw people in more regularly.

What is clear from speaking to Sean, Roubi and Bill is that the functionality online won't do it alone. Social networks need to be constantly innovating, providing rich content and bringing members together if they are to be a key part of their members' lives.

Maybe then, we'll see another boom.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Podcasting in Plain English

Common Craft have done it again! Just ahead of my new weekly podcast for Business Matters magazine, they have created the excellent 'Podcasting in Plain English'.