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Designing for the Future: Creating Effective Networks

How to make the most of networking
By Dick Wolfe
August 11, 2011

How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Usually that’s said in a sarcastic way, indicating someone is where they are merely because of personal connections. However, a lot of legitimate, well-deserved success in business is the result of networking—getting to know people who can refer you for projects, jobs or other opportunities.

It used to be that all networking was face-to-face and/or by phone, making building and maintaining a large base of contacts both daunting and time-consuming. The advent of social media has tremendously accelerated the rate at which you can make contacts and made it simpler to stay in touch. It, however, does not take the place of face-to-face networking. Both are necessary to create an extensive and useful database of contacts.


THE VALUE OF AN EXTENDED NETWORK

Most of us have gone through our careers thinking that the closest relationships are the most productive relationships. In many ways they are. Certainly people you know well and communicate with regularly are more motivated to help you and vice versa. However, the downside to your “close network” is that, since you know each other so well, you tend to be aware of mostly the same information. An extended network of people who you aren’t intimately connected to, but with whom you share business interests, gives you access to a wealth of information and opportunity you might otherwise never encounter.


USING SOCIAL MEDIA TO EXTEND YOUR NETWORK

As discussed above, if you interact only with your close network, very little new information flows in. This is where social media can add an exponential element to networking. A couple of the more well-known platforms are LinkedIn and Plaxo. With these you can easily create extended networks of people in the same or related businesses.

LinkedIn allows you to build and maintain a network, as well as offering groups you can join and interact with to create new connections and deepen existing connections. It provides a way to both build a network and provide value in order to receive value in return without leaving your home or office.

Plaxo works a bit more like a virtual Rolodex. This is an option for people who want to build an extended network, but may not need or want to join online professional groups such as LinkedIn offers.

Once you create an extended network of people with like interests, you can access tons of information and opportunities you can’t get from your close network. You can also access intelligence from both their close and extended contacts. You will also easily see how this dramatically expands opportunities for your business while allowing you to manage your time.


DON’T NEGLECT FACE-TO-FACE

Under no circumstances should you fall into the trap of thinking electronic networking replaces good old-fashioned face-to-face meetings. In fact, trade shows could probably reinvent themselves partly by facilitating better networking, as one show in the Northwest has.

I recently spoke with Amy Bright who, in addition to working at a prominent tile dealer in Portland, OR, is a member of both the local NKBA chapter and the NWSID. The NWSID runs a trade show called BUILD in the Portland area. In the past, it has been a fairly typical “vendors-show-their-wares, designers-and-contractors-walk-around-and-look-at-them” sort of show.

A few years ago, NWSID approached Amy to help manage the show. At the same time the group acknowledged that the show was losing some of its excitement and interest, as well as attendees. Amy suggested turning it into a networking event. The idea was embraced and some fairly radical changes were made.

The static nature of the show, including product displays, was completely eliminated. Taking a cue from the book, Eat, Pray, Love, the event changed to a format of Eat, Play, Learn. The first night is a dinner gathering. The first day is a menu of group recreational activities for hanging out and getting better acquainted. The second day is educational with speakers, CEU classes and seminars.

BUILD has been on a growth curve since the new format was instituted in 2009 and is now a joint effort of NWSID, NKBA, Oregon Remodelers Association (ORA) and Professional Remodelers Organization (PRO). They have been very successful in helping contractors, designers and vendors network and find better ways to work together for mutual benefit.

Attendee Greg Olson, owner of contracting firm Olson & Jones, had this to say, “Contractors and designers need to work together so we can all succeed. BUILD has given us a new opportunity to both strengthen existing relationships and create new ones. Everyone benefits from this type of interaction, including our clients.”

BUILD wouldn’t be nearly as effective had it been strictly a designer event. The fact that it brings together designers, contractors and vendors is the key. It’s a great example of extending a network to include pros in related businesses to create more opportunity for all.

To be a truly successful networker, you have to get outside your comfort zone and increase your reach.


—Dick Wolfe is SVP of The MWW Group, an award-winning independent public relations agency that specializes in helping design effective marketing programs for well-known consumer brands and business-to-business companies. Wolfe brings deep experience as a trusted communications advisor to companies seeking successful brand positioning, marketing communications and visibility campaigns that focus on the design/build community. To contact Wolfe with questions and suggestions on topics for future articles, please email him at dwolfe@mww.com.
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