Business networking events are mutually beneficial occasions where professionals get to share referrals, ideas and information. Today, in-person and virtual networking events are both commonplace. But no matter the format of the business networking event, your goal should be to generate quality leads, not just to talk to as many people as possible. Engaging in a few meaningful interactions is far better than having a large number of unproductive ones. Here are tips to will help you make the most of both in-person and virtual industry conferences, seminars and other business networking opportunities:

In-Person Networking Event Tips

Honor the RSVP. Don't decide to attend an event at the last minute and show up unexpectedly. That's why RSVPs were created. Many events are catered, so it's important for those who've done the planning to know exactly how many people will be attending. In some cases, name tags and formal place cards are created for attendees. By showing up "unannounced," you've placed yourself and the host in an awkward position – not to mention created a bad impression.

Identify your purpose for attending. How might you benefit? How might you help others? What are the professional payoffs? What are the personal payoffs? Know who is sponsoring the event and who you will likely meet there. Set some goals for yourself. 

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Attend with a friend. If it's your first time attending a networking event or you're anxious, consider asking a friend or associate to join you. When you arrive with a buddy, entrances are not nearly so intimidating. You and your friend can introduce one another. Just don't be too attached to your buddy though. Remember, you are there to meet new people.

Find a line to jump in. If you don’t know anyone at a networking event and aren’t sure where to start, find a line to stand in. Maybe it’s the line for coffee or the dessert table or a breakout session sign-up sheet. The line, and the situation you’re in, will give you an easy conversation starter: “The keynote address sounds like it will be really thought provoking” or “I can’t wait to try one of those cups of chocolate mousse!”

Arrive on time. Do not stroll in fashionably late. That may be OK for a cocktail party, but not a networking event. Your tardiness can give off the wrong impression to possible employers or contacts.

Pay attention to body language. When making your introduction, if you’re comfortable shaking hands and it’s clear the person you’re meeting would like to, shake hands firmly, assertively and cordially. A strong handshake will show that you are confident and self-assured. But note that shaking hands is on, well, shaky ground right now thanks to the pandemic. Many event planners even offer stickers to attendees letting conference-goers know if they’re open to physical contact. Alternative ways of introduction include fist bumps, elbow taps, a wave, or a simple nod and warm smile. The key here is sincerity and authenticity, no matter your method of saying hello.

Focus on others. Approach everyone you meet from the standpoint of what you can do for them. You don't want to sound too pushy or needy. If you focus only on your own career goals and what you want, you may miss out on a possible opportunity. Remember that everyone at the event has a reason for being there. Make it your mission to find out that reason and see if their reason matches yours.

Avoid awkward moments. Forget someone's name? Invariably you will run into someone you met at a previous event whose face looks very familiar but you just can't place it. Simply approach the person and state your name first. Most people will reply in kind. Questions such as, "Do you remember me?" are to be avoided as they put people on the spot and sound presumptuous.

Be prepared. Before arriving at the event, practice your elevator pitch. You can be sure someone will ask you, "What do you do?" Have your answer ready, so that you're not caught off guard and stumbling for words. Also come prepared with a healthy stock of business cards and keep them in a spot where you can retrieve them easily.

Strategically share business cards. Pass out your cards selectively. Don't give your cards to everyone who crosses your path. You'll want cards from people with whom you've made a connection. Also, it’s best to ask for business cards rather than offering yours.

Offer appreciation. If there is a clearly designated host for the event, make sure you connect with that person briefly before leaving to express your appreciation and say thanks. If this isn't possible, always send a thank-you note. This is common courtesy and shows that you appreciate the business opportunity that was provided. You might want to briefly touch base with anyone else who might have provided a contact, referral or important piece of information.

Advice for Networking at Virtual Events

Share all of your info. Most virtual events will provide attendees a place to share their personal information via an online profile. Don’t skip this important step. Consider this free advertising – of you! Take time to write a carefully crafted bio that’s tailored to the event. Depending on the event, this may include your email address, phone number, LinkedIn page, portfolio website, and certain social media accounts. Sharing your social media accounts can be a good way to gain followers and stay connected with those you meet virtually long after a conference has ended. Some events may also ask for a photo. While you don’t necessarily need to provide a formal headshot, have an image available that’s more than a cropped version of a family vacation pic. 

Review the attendee list. Looking to connect with someone from a particular company or industry? Before an event, take time to review not only the list of speakers, but also the attendee list. Read their profiles. Create a prioritized list of people you most want to interact with, and try to come up with a game plan as to how that might happen. For example, if you see someone on the attendee list who you really want to meet, check out their social media accounts. They may post a session they’re planning to attend, in which case you can sign up for said session.

Participate in the discussions. One of the great aspects of virtual events are the side discussions and chats that can happen during sessions. While you don’t want to distract anyone from what is being said, an insightful comment or question can create an immediate positive impression. 

Make the most of breakout sessions. These smaller sessions are an ideal place for you to shine. A few well-timed comments can help you show off your industry expertise. And more intimate settings, even when virtual, allow for more opportunity for your personality to shine. Scale your number of comments to the size of the session. Good commenters who are also good listeners will make a better impression, and it’s important that you allow all attendees their time in the spotlight as well.

Post about the event on social media. Let your networking circles know you’re attending this virtual event before you go. Event organizers will appreciate the marketing bump, and you may convince someone you hope will be there to attend. Post about the event after it’s ended, too. Consider tagging people you connected with and use event hashtags. This is a great way to build new, online relationships. 

A Final Word on Business Networking Events

After the in-person or virtual event, make sure you follow up with any contacts you made and are interested in pursuing. It’s wise to promptly send a “nice to meet you” email or message. If possible, tailor each message and consider sharing an article the person might be interested based on your conversation. Simply put, you never know where your next career opportunity will come from.