Monday, December 15, 2008

2008 - Was this the dawn of a new age of networking?

This article was originally published in The National Networker

Has this been the year networking has grown up in the UK? There certainly seem to have been more changes in the last 12 months than any comparable period in the last decade.

Before 2000, very few businesses were aware of networking as a formal way of developing a business. A few Chambers of Commerce ran popular events; meanwhile, Business Network International (BNI) and Business Referral Exchange (BRX) were in their infancy in this country, encouraging people of the virtues of getting out of bed for 7am to do business. Beyond that and a few independent groups, networking had a very low profile.

The landscape has now changed dramatically. Almost every Chamber of Commerce will provide opportunities through breakfast meetings, networking lunches and early evening cocktails. Breakfast meetings come in all shapes and sizes to satisfy different appetites, with a vast array of groups meeting weekly, fortnightly and monthly. You pay your money, you take your choice!

4Networking offer a ‘passport membership’ allowing their members to pick and choose local groups and go to five meetings a week if they choose to. Meanwhile, there is a wide menu of lunch groups and evening networks to go if the other options are not to your taste.

The online revolution has been even more dramatic. While networking groups have been around for years, if not widespread, a decade ago online networks were almost non-existent. Ecademy celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year, Xing came along even later and in Facebook didn’t see the light of day until just four years ago. Now there are countless social and online business networks, with more and more being created daily thanks to platforms such as Ning, which allow individuals to create their own social network with the minimum of fuss.

So, there are a lot more opportunities to network and a greater range of choice as to how to do so. How has this affected people’s behaviour when they do network?

Mindy Gibbins-Klein, a former Area Director for BNI in East London, believes that the growth of online networks has led to a drop off in the amount of structured face to face networking.

“I have seen many business people think twice about attending "expensive" face-to-face networking meetings lately”, said Mindy. “I've been getting a lot more emails and networking messages from people I've not been in touch with for a long time, which leads me to believe they are spending more time networking at their desks and less time out and about.

“I've also noticed that the networks that seem to be gaining ground are less strict about attendance and giving referrals, more open in terms of allowing people to attend different meetings.”

It has been apparent that a common theme among the recent ‘competitors’ to the weekly breakfast meetings has been the removal of the emphasis on a weekly commitment. Starting with BoBs (Business over Breakfast) Clubs a few years ago, who offered their groups the choice of meeting weekly or fortnightly, more groups have chosen a less frequent meeting pattern. One of the major reasons people have chosen not to join BNI or BRX in the past has been the weekly commitment, but does this change the focus of the network?

“We don’t call ourselves a referral network”, says 4Networking Managing Director Brad Burton. “In fact, we have a relationship with BNI and many of our members belong to both organisations.

“We found that our members don’t want to be tied to a set time and place every week, indeed many simply can’t commit on that scale. So we allow people to network at frequencies to suit them, some will come once or twice a month but many actually go to more than one meeting a week. It just may not always be the same meeting.”

The cost and commitment of the traditional referral networks has put off a number of people who are new to networking, and those who have been members in the past. The new networks offer an alternative and encourage people to network who might not do so otherwise, but it is important that people understand the difference.

The new types of network are far more focused on sales than referrals. Brad Burton calls 4Networking’s approach ‘Appointment Networking’, with members and guests spending ten minutes with each of three different people during the course of a meeting, while The Business Club (fortnightly in the evenings) make a strong pitch on selling to other members and guests at their launch events.

With new networks focusing much more on immediate response, where are the opportunities to build deep relationships? There has been a clear growth in the numbers of leadership and mastermind groups available, with a number of competitors to Vistage and ACE emerging in the CEO group market, and people becoming more aware of Mastermind groups. Formal leadership and mastermind groups are still, on the whole, a more costly option, although their members would argue the value provided is much higher than less focused networks.

With mastermind groups fairly simple for individuals to put together and more networks incorporating Masterminding techniques in their meeting formats, I think that we will see a growth in small groups focused around business challenges in the next couple of years and less focus on the need for large numbers in face to face networking meetings. The focus on strong relationships and trust will, by their very nature, lie at the core of these groups.

In the meantime, more people are turning to online networks to meet new people. Ecademy have seen a 142% increase in traffic on last year and LinkedIn is becoming a recognised business tool across the UK, and not just among small business. The interesting change in behaviour is on Facebook as an increasing number of people are comfortable using the network to promote their business and events rather than simply to communicate with friends.

Business Matters, the leading magazine for small businesses in the UK, have set up their own Facebook group. Editor Richard Alvin believes that the medium allows him to show the ‘personal’ side of the magazine to its readers, as well as increasing their exposure to a wider audience.

Richard explained, “Facebook has a far more friendly 'personal brand' and graphical approach compared to Linked in and even Ecademy. The style of communication is different, with normal language used, rather than ‘business speak’. I feel that this gives us a closer bond with both our readers and other Facebook members. We feel as though we know each other personally, and that makes a huge difference.

The advent of online networks has had other benefits for Business Matters. “We are more online focused now,” he said, “I can network nationally from my office, rather than just London wide.

“As we are a national publication that is essential, and there are obvious cost efficiencies we can take advantage of by networking online. Additionally, building a relationship online first can make a lot of difference when you have a meeting with someone elsewhere in the UK.”

Despite the growth of online networks, relationships still need to take place offline. People are starting to understand this and there have been signs that activity is being increasingly split between virtual connections and real-time relationship building.

Many of the people I have spoken to and network with talk about the vital role 1-2-1s play, even in their online networks. Many online business networks have had meetings as part of their offering for some time. Now, however, those who don’t still find their members arranging their own events, with LinkedIn user groups a good example of this.

Some online networks, such as Angels Den, have recognised the importance of this by focusing even more on offline events. Angels Den found that their results improved when they introduced Speed Funding for members.

Bill Morrow, the owner of Angels Den, said, “Online is groovy for making connections, finding out who walks the walk ... but nothing can surpass meeting face-to-face for serious meetings.”

“Our online community works well at finding investors, but only one deal in over 100 has been done purely online”

With people in the UK joining local networks and global ones such as Perfect Networker and Fast Pitch, Twittering with each other and Poking on Facebook, a saturation point is fast approaching. Most of the connection requests I receive on the multiple networks that come across my computer are from the same people. There has to be a point where you question the purpose of connecting with the same person in a different place. Particularly when that new connection point offers nothing new.

In the meantime, new contacts increasingly come from further and further afield and many seem only interested in either notching another connection on their social networking bedpost or sending a lot of spam once the connection has been made.

We are already seeing signs of people being turned away from social networks by these issues. Many business people don’t want to trade globally and are purely focused on building their profile and their networks locally. As the novelty wears off, I believe the behaviour of many networkers will change and they will focus on networks closer to home.

Some of those will be online, others face to face. Some face to face networks have recognised this and many now offer social networking software as part of their membership package. People recognise the benefits online networks offer them as they look for tools to initiate new relationships and stay in touch with people they have met. They recognise, however, that they don’t provide all of the answers on their own.

There have been a lot of changes in the way people network in the UK over the last twelve months. The profile of networking has grown, more businesses of all sizes recognise its importance and the variety of alternatives on offer is greater than ever before.

Businesses are just starting to make sense of the opportunities available to them and how they fit into their business. 2009 is going to be an interesting year, particularly with a recession in full flow.

Networking is more important than ever before, and it’s just starting to reach maturity.

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