Let’s say you’re single, lonely, and desperate for a date. That, of course, isn’t actually the case so you’ll need to use your imagination for a moment. Now imagine that you’ve been invited on a group date with the promise that you’ll definitely hit it off with someone special. The organizer isn’t really sure about that but a match seems likely because more than 500 single, lonely, and fairly desperate people will also be on the group date. It sounds like a sure thing, right?

Wrong.

When faced with so much opportunity, your first instinct will be to hunker down with a few friendly faces and wait for the end of the evening. Instead of making something amazing happen, you’ll take the safe route. Unfortunately, the safe route often means you go home alone with a story about the one that got away.

Unfortunately, most conferences and networking events end just like that. Now what if I told you there was a different way? What if I told you that, continuing the group date example, I could show you how to do background checks on all the attendees and see what they look like in the buff before ever stepping into the same room? You’d be interested, of course!

While I won’t tell you how to find compromising photos of everyone attending your next networking event, I’ll give you something just as valuable. Here are five steps you can implement and build upon to make the most of your next networking event:

1. Establish Event-Specific Goals

Walking into a networking event or conference without a plan is, barring a miracle, a waste of your time. Without a plan you’ll bounce from event to event and float toward the people you already know. But not this time! This time you’re going to establish real goals for what you’ll get from a specific event.

For example, a small business owner might attend a local meetup of social media types hoping to expand her network with some web-savvy marketers. Instead of saying, “this meetup will give me the chance to make business contacts” she’ll have a specific outcome in mind and won’t waste time on the wrong people.

2. Identify & Research Targets

Now that you’ve established goals for your event experience, it’s time to do some legwork and figure out who will help you reach those goals. Most conferences and meetups have a list of attendees published in a public space, usually online. Smaller events might just have an Eventbrite homepage while big conferences will often maintain a separate list. Many events use hashtags on Twitter so people attending the event can connect beforehand and during the event. Do you see where all this is going?

The idea is to identify as many event attendees as possible and extract a group of people you most want to connect with. Once you have a list of people attending the event, weed your list based on how certain people could possibly help you reach your goals for the event. If you want to connect with web developers, you’ll not have florists or fishing coaches on your list.

Once you’ve identified the people you think are worth pursuing at a glance, it’s time to do some research. This might seem tedious and boring, but it’s needed if you want to really get the most of your event. While most of the attendees will stroll into the event with a devil-may-care attitude, you’ll have a short list of targets whose blogs you’ve read, tweets you’ve followed, and major interests you’ve identified. You have a definite advantage!

3. Use An Event Card

An event card is exactly like an old school dance card. But instead of scheduling dances with pretty people, you’ll be marking off successful connections with your targets. The simplest version is a plain list of names. That’ll work if you have an amazing memory and ability to place lots of new names with faces. But most of us aren’t so gifted.

I prefer to make small cards that include a name, photo, major interests, a thought I had after reading one of my target’s recent blog posts, and a few people also at the event I think they’d enjoy meeting. Putting the time into researching a contact before meeting them has never, ever turned out to be a waste of time for me. It’s an act of faith that has always returned far more than I invested.

If you want to really do things nicely, add your target contact’s image and information to a special contacts list on your smart phone. That way, when you do get contact information from your new friend, you won’t have to enter anything but their number or email address. If they ask you about why you had their information programmed into your phone already, just tell them you’re a big fan and had planned on meeting them. After all, you are and you did! =)

4. Establish Your Presence

There are a few things you should keep in mind as you work to establish your presence as a worthwhile connection to your targets:

  • Whenever you have the chance, show your target that you are somebody worth knowing. If your research revealed that one of your intended contacts has chatted online with another contact, try to be the one to introduce them to each other. (It only takes a moment or two to figure out who your target likes to chat with on a site like Twitter but hasn’t met yet.)
  • As with romantic relationships, dinner is a bigger deal than drinks or a quick chat. If you get the chance to join a prime target for a meal, do it!
  • Try to get contact information for your target that may not be immediately available online. A lot of people have email addresses they give out online or use to sign up for new services. You don’t want that one. You want the one they actually check. Barring a good email address, a friend request via Facebook will usually do just as well. People throw all their personal info there and you’ll have no trouble getting in touch with them!

When in doubt, friendly conversation and a real effort to listen will at least save you from being labeled as obnoxious!

5. Follow Up

It doesn’t matter how much research you do or how well you woo your targets if you fail to follow up with them after the event! A good rule is to make sure you’ve contacted your targets within 3 days of meeting. Calling is probably too much unless you really hit it off and have already agreed to meet up. Otherwise, a brief email saying hello and reminding your target of the interesting conversation you had, etc. should do the trick.

Once your target responds, you’re set to continue your relationship and eventually enjoy the fruits of your networking labors! A bit of planning, some basic research, and the will to follow through are the only things standing between you and a robust network of interesting people!

How could I be such a cold-hearted monster and turn a gathering of wonderful people into a game of numbers and value exchanges? In practice, I don’t always. But just as it’s easier to explain the workings of an automobile engine once it’s been removed from the car, social networking is best explained in unadulterated terms.

Do you have any questions or a tip of your own to add?

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