Job-seekers and business owners are regularly urged to attend networking groups to broaden their circle of contacts. The good news is they take the advice in droves. The bad news is it's a big-time suck that often costs a lot and doesn't always translate into work or business growth.
A study by the U.S. Association for Small Businesses and Entrepreneurship on the usefulness of business networking found that 43% of business professionals attend as many as 20 networking events each year. While about 55% were satisfied, most noted that attending multiple events is time-consuming and 26% said they weren't sure that it made a whit of difference.
The experts offer this advice: Check out the groups before you go, don't sign a long-term contract with any networking club unless you've attended a meeting first, and know what you want from a networking group so that you don't waste your time with those that have a different focus than what you expect.
Here are five commonly held misconceptions:
1. Business networking groups are a good way to meet new friends.
While they certainly can be, that isn't what they should be. A quality business networking group should make business connections for you, not social ones. This isn't Match.com, after all. A quality group will offer you educational advancement and show you new ways to approach your business or leads in your job-hunt.
2. Business networking groups are set up by altruists who like to help people find jobs or grow their businesses.
Again, while that may be true in some cases, don't dismiss the reality that many business networks are in the business of running business networks. They exist to make money and grow their own business. If they're good, they may also help you grow your business, but they exist to grow theirs, not yours. They may charge you to join; they may charge guest speakers to address you and let those speakers try and sell you their products. It's not a bad thing, an illegal thing, or even an immoral thing. It's just not always the altruistic thing you think it is. If they provide you with a service, why shouldn't you pay for it? There are various church and community-related jobs support networks that have sprung up in the recession. They are usually free or charge just a nominal fee. Some are better than others; most are as good as the people who come and volunteer their time.
3. Once you're there, it's fine to just listen.
Truth is, networking groups don't work for wallflowers. You can't hide out in the corner expecting someone to approach you; you need to scan the name tags for company names and find someone interesting to talk to. What's the point of walking around with your cellphone to your ear? Yeah, we all get that you are an important person whose office just can't run without you -- so maybe you should have just stayed home in the first place and spared us all the annoyance of having to hear your conversation. If you bothered to get dressed and come out, make the most of your time there. Pass out business cards, give your 30-second elevator pitch and walk away with something tangible from the meeting. And should you get pigeon-holed by someone who can't help you grow your business or find a job, politely excuse yourself and move on. Consider it a lesson in time management: Don't waste it on anyone who isn't the reason you came.
4. A networking group can double as a therapy group.
Some job networking groups are indeed places to bring your sad tale of woe and a crying towel. We all need someone to talk to once in a while and besides, who has health insurance that covers therapy these days? But for the most part, a good, business-support network will focus everyone's eyes on the future, not the past. Facilitators should be able to keep meetings focused on results, accountability and have a passion for what they are doing. Bad ones allow introductory elevator pitches to turn into life stories and take up everyone's precious time.
5. Networking online is just as effective.
Again, it depends on what you want. If you want a job in a particular field and are willing to relocate anywhere, social networking may indeed be the course to pursue. Join LinkedIn, make some new Facebook friends. Your goal is to cast a wide net and the best way to do that is online. Focus on finding people who work where you want to work and zero in on them. If what you want is a job in your own city, spend your time instead on some networking breakfasts and local job support groups. Join the ones that attract others who are job hunting in your salary range.
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