Freelance marketing expert Paul Silver has spent five years helping flourish a local community of freelancers and contractors. If you’re looking for contacts, new business, professional advice, or just a sympathetic ear from someone who has ‘been there’ then Paul’s suggests how ‘casual networking events’ might work for you.
A Typical Night at the Farm
The Farm is a weekly networking meet up for new media freelancers and contractors in Brighton. I’ve run the event on most Wednesday evenings for the last five years, in a variety of pubs in and around Brighton. I thought it might be useful to describe how the average evening works out in case you’re nervous of getting out there networking.
The Farm is a ‘casual’ networking event; as in it’s a place to meet up and chat with other freelancers, rather than a more formal networking where you may need to give a brief ‘elevator pitch’ style talk of your company to everyone, or speed networking events where you meet everyone for a limited time.
Casual groups are a good way to ease yourself in to networking if you’re shy or nervous as you’re not going to be put on the spot to describe your services in front of bunch of experienced pitchers – it’s more a case about having a chat about what you do with a few people within the group.
The evening generally goes like this…
This is the most likely time for new people to turn up. They’re more eager, and probably don’t believe the event will really go on until the pub closes (or beyond.) This has good and bad points – if they’re new to freelancing they get a decent chat with me and whoever else is around without distractions. If they’re all ready comfortable networking then they may be a little disappointed until more people turn up.
During this hour the group is small, 4-7 people, and everyone is having the same conversation. This is often based around how to find work, starting freelancing, what projects people are doing at the moment, and how to spread bills out.
Lots more people turn up, generally in the first part of the hour, and the group splits in to several smaller conversations. Beer has started lubricating the conversation of the early starters, and indeed the more recent attendees. Lots of the conversations cover people catching up who haven’t seen each other for a while, and potential projects being talked about.
This is the phase where most business gets done, both by people who all ready know each other, and people with complimentary skills or projects meeting for the first time. It’s when the group is at it’s largest and it’s when people are still pretty sober. (I don’t want to give the impression we’re a bunch of alcoholics, but having meetings in a pub means the conversation definitely changes over the evening for those people who’re drinking.)
The conversations are now ranging far and wide, from being only mildly related to what people do, to intense topics only of interest to the 2-3 people having them. This is the time where I try to rescue people who have become stuck in a conversation they know nothing about, but won’t move due to politeness, for instance a copywriter listening to two Java programmers talk about the Spring Framework. Generally the group peaks in size at about 14-18 people, although it may go to over 20 depending on other local events.
A far amount of physical shifting around happens during this period and new connections are made. People who only come to the group occasionally often mistake new members as being more ‘experienced’ than they are, and new conversations about business and advice are sparked off as they discover it’s a new person they know nothing about.
Interesting chat and promises of contact fairly summarise what happens before the pub closes. Generally people realise it isn’t a good idea to agree anything as everyone’s tired, either from a long day or as the newt. A hardcore group will decide to go on to a later opening pub, whereas those of us with saner minds, or heavier schedules, take the chance to run off in to the night. Another event safely put to bed.
Tips for getting the most out of casual networking:
- Don’t be scared of going. People there want to meet you and find out about what you do, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit shy at first. The nice thing about networking is there’s usually an interesting conversation going on somewhere and you can sit and listen rather than diving straight in.
- Concentrate on having a story about your services or work, then look for opportunities to use them. When someone asks what you’re doing at the moment, don’t say “I’m doing some e-mail marketing for this company.” Try for “I’m helping this company out with their marketing, we’ve gone for an e-mail campaign and it seems to be working well. They make blue widgets so we’ve been going from this angle…” Go for a combination of soft sell and open chat with plenty of chances for people to ask questions or broaden the conversation out with their own experiences. Don’t try to rule the conversation, you’ll end up looking like a prat.
- Business cards are useful, but don’t throw yours around like they’re on fire unless everyone else is, at casual events it can look pushy and it can be better to swap cards at the end of a conversation rather than the start.
- Casual networking is often about building relationships over time and building trust. To get the best from it you’ll need to attend events at least semi-regularly and get yourself known. If you’re very lucky, you might get some work from attending just one event, but generally you’ll need to attend at least semi-regularly to get the best from a group.
Don’t be nervous
Hopefully if you’re a nervous networker, this has shown you that a casual event is nothing to be worried about. Turn up, chat about what you do, and try to find out about what others do, then magically, work appears! Well, it’s practically that easy.
If you’re in Brighton on a Wednesday evening, you’re more than welcome to come along to one of the Farm events. Have a check of our website to find out which pub we’ll be in.
We know that Brighton is blessed with thriving freelance community and that other towns and cities may not be so fortunate to have a Farm of their own. We’re hoping to persuade Paul to share some of his ideas on how to run a ‘Casual Networking Event’ so if you’ve not got an event near you, and are thinking of starting one, look out for that article soon.