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How to Start a Networking Group

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Meeting people at networking events is a great way to grow your professional network of connections — plus increase the frequency of visiting with people you already know.

People who share a common interest, problem, or profession benefit from spending face-to-face time with like-minded people.

You know networking is great — however, there are times when you can't find a well-matched networking group near you that meets your needs.

Solve this networking dilemma — when there's no networking group near you, start one.

Benefits of starting a networking group

Starting and running a networking group is a lot of work, so you need to think about how you will not only spend the time necessary, but benefit from your time investment.

A few years ago a few friends and I started a networking group because we wanted to network with other entrepreneurs like us, and there was no group in our area. Some people start a networking group to turn it into a business, while others start a networking group that's part of their existing business. And yes, some want the social benefits.

The three Ps of a networking group

There are the essential ingredients to a successful networking group:

  • Purpose — How will attendees benefit from attending meetings and making new contacts? Is there a "passion" that will encourage participation?
  • People — What common interest or need will hold your community together?
  • Place — Where will your networking group meet that attendees will find comfortable and convenient?
  • Promotion — How will you reach out to new people in the area who share an interest in the networking group's purpose for meeting?

Mission and purpose

Here are several leadership questions that will help you create a clear picture of what your networking group will accomplish:

  • What interest will your attendees and members have in common?
  • How will people benefit by attending your networking events?
  • How will people meet new contacts that will lead to beneficial relationships?

There are a wide variety of networking groups, such as:

  • Business and social networking group — People who want to socialize and form relationships with others in their specific profession or industry.
  • Networking leads and referral group — Salespeople and business development people who work together to help their customers.
  • Job leads group — People who share job opportunities with others who are looking for a job.

In addition to helping the people who attend your networking meetings, think about how you will benefit, too. It takes a lot of time and work to start and run a networking group, and you need to think about how you will benefit from taking on this leadership role. If you don't receive a reasonable return on your invested time and money - chances are you will burn out before the group can reach critical mass.
Networking needs people

Every networking group needs several types of people:

  • Founders — People who lead, plan, and recruit others to attend.
  • Supporters — People who help the networking group grow and thrive by inviting their contacts to meetings, making introduction, and, in some cases, sponsor networking meetings and special events.
  • Attendees — People who attend the meetings, participate, and engage with other who are looking to network and create mutually beneficial relationships.

Networking groups need programs

Many networking groups get started with the idea that people will just naturally attend and mingle and meet people. This can work well in the early days when the founders and supporters invite people they know and who have a core shared interest in socializing.

However, as the group grows, it helps to have a "program" that attracts new people to attend. Each meeting's program also shapes and develops the common interest of the people attending each meeting — new people know that those who share an interest in the programs topic will attend.

The typical program at most networking groups, association chapters, and other interest groups is a guest speaker from outside the group. However, there are several other types of program formats, such as:

  • Featured member presentation
  • Every attendee makes a mini-presentation
  • Every attendee participates in a "speed networking" activity where everyone meets everyone else one-to-one

Places to network

Finding a location for a new networking group to meet is usually easy, but it becomes more difficult as the group attracts more attendees.

New networking groups normally start by meeting at free locations, such as:

  • Conference room at a member's office
  • Coffee shop
  • Restaurant
  • Lobby of a large hotel

An example of location used by a lot of small and casual networking groups is their nearest Panera Bread location. Their locations have plenty of room, good coffee and snacks, and free WiFi!

Free locations like these allow a networking group to avoid charging for attendance. Each person just pays for whatever they eat or drink.

However, as the number of people who attend increases, it will become necessary to contract with venues that handle larger meetings and events. This means that the organizers need to pay for the room, and for the food and drinks provided to attendees. And, this means that attendees need to pay to attend the networking events. Collecting fees can be handled by either having people register online before the event or pay at the door.

Promoting a networking group's meetings

Networking groups thrive when there is a mix of regular attendees who frequently attend plus new, interested people at each event — and this takes promotion.

Some networking groups try to promote their meetings by just posting a notice on their Web event calendar and sending a personal e-mail to the people in their contact list. This doesn't work well because it usually doesn't reach a significant number of people who might attend, and it doesn't remind people frequently enough to break through the clutter of media overload.

The very best way to promote a networking event to your core participants is to send several e-mails to everyone who has attended in the past. The easiest way to do this is to use an online meeting promotion and RSVP service, such as SureToMeet.

Networking groups need to attract new people to attend, participate, and become loyal members. This is effectively achieved by promoting the group's meetings and events in several ways:

  • Referrals — Make it easy for previous attendees to invite their friends and associates.
  • Social media — Post announcements on social media sites where like-minded followers and friends can click through to the event Web page and RSVP.
  • Traditional and online media — Post announcements on Web calendar sites, and send announcements to local newspapers with calendar sections.
  • Sign-up form — Make it easy for people to subscribe to your meeting notices with an online registration form.

Planning the new networking group

Each of the start-up elements of starting and growing a networking group has a lot of details, so to make your networking debut easier for you, we've created an interactive planning tool for starting and running a networking group. Just start at the top level of the interactive mind map, and drill down to the specific action items and tasks that will help you create your networking group's meetings and events.

Do Big Events Still Work?

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Big events used to be a great way to pull people together, motivate them, and update them on new information. Corporations held large internal meetings. And, industry associations held large annual conventions for their members.

However, the low cost of the Internet and the high cost of convention halls, hotels, and airlines - plus the lost productivity - has resulted in a decrease in the number of those huge corporate events and week-long industry conferences.

Seth Godin questions big event value

Seth Godin recently sparked a conversation on the Web on whether big events are still valuable. He was referring to large events such as product introductions, but the meeting/event industry used his piece to discuss the challenges of their industry.

And, the meetings and events industry that produces large events is facing some big challenges. I can name almost a dozen large conferences I used to attend that don't exist anymore. And, many other large events just aren't so large these days,

For example, a few weeks ago I attended a large industry association conference in Las Vegas to help a startup company research a manufacturing technology. Not being from that industry, we needed to get up to speed quickly, meet vendors selling that technology, and evaluate the technology.

Unfortunately, the conference had no educational sessions on this small, emerging technology. So, we met with the handful of vendors - whose booths were scattered across multiple buildings. And, since attendance at the show was down the people in the booths had plenty a time to talk with us.

It turned out that it would have been much more productive and inexpensive for us to attend a day-long seminar with presentations by just these vendors.

Replacing conventions and big conferences

What's replacing those huge conventions and conferences? Two things.

  • First, of course, is the Internet. Initially, e-mail discussion groups and forums provided information more quickly than trade magazines and annual conferences. Today, webinars and self-paced e-learning deliver information and education where and when you need it.
  • Second, local/regional meetings and events provide an easy and inexpensive way to meet with likeminded people face-to-face more frequently than at annual conferences. In addition, the quality of presentations at local groups and chapter meetings is frequently as valuable as those at large national conferences.

The big, expensive conferences will survive on lower attendance. They just won't be so big and expensive.

Local events & meetings

Expect to see a lot more local groups and organizations produce high-quality meetings and events around the narrow, specific interests of their members - which will reduce the need to fly off to large conventions.

Have a comment? Click here to addd to this conversation on Google Buzz.

Interactive Webinar Planning Tool

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The Web-based webinar has become a popular way to make a presentation to people no matter where they are. However, online webinars have gotten a bad reputation - audience members do other tasks during webinars, and some people say they have left the room while a webinar is in progress.

Since SureToMeet provides event registration services for organizations holding both in-person meetings and online webinars, we have an interest in organizations having successful webinars!

Improving the webinar experience

It has become so easy and inexpensive to hold a webinar that it's easy to neglect the event planning and content preparation that's essential for a quality webinar experience. So, we created a free, interactive webinar planning tool as a source of "webinar best practices." These webinar planning ideas can help all webinar producers improve their webinar results.

Just start at the top level and click down to the specific action items and tasks that will help you produce a successful and beneficial webinar.

Appealing to Member "Hot Buttons"

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People attend meeting and events over and over again because they feel they receive value from attending each time. Once they attend a few meetings and don't feel that they benefited they quit attending.

It's no secret that we all act that way. What seems to be a secret to many groups and organizations is how to deliver the "value" that members and volunteers are seeking.

During her Lazy Leader Road Show, Cynthia D'Amour shared how to attract (and retain) members by appealing to their "hot buttons." People who attend meetings are looking for some combination of these attributes:

  • Personal/professional development
  • Make a difference
  • Be part of a community

Every organization is different, so each organization's members look for different combinations of these attributes.

Chapters of professional organizations rely more on professional development than a business networking mixer group. But, both types of organizations have the same challenge -- to deliver the "value" that meets the needs of members in these three areas.

Search Engine Optimized Events Calendar

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An event organizer has many jobs, but the one that probably causes the most anxiety is event promotion. I know I feel it every time we put on an event. While your own e-mail list is the best source of registrations, it's great to get registrations from people who have never attended one of your events.

One technique is to use search engine optimization (SEO) to attract searchers to your event description page. The challenge that most organizations face is their Web site can't get ranked high enough in search engines to matter.

There are two main components to successful SEO: page content and incoming links. It's relatively easy to optimize the content of an event page, but it's very hard to get enough links to the organization's Web site to rank high in the search engines.

A solution is to add your event to the SureToMeet event calendar because our whole site is search engine optimized. For example, SureToMeet automatically creates up to five links to your event that are fed to search engines within hours. In several recent tests every event we tested showed up on the first page of search engines, while the organization's own site ranked much further down.

For organizations that use SureToMeet's online event registration this SEO promotion is done automatically for public events. For other organizations that that use their own online event registration process, they can add their events to the SureToMeet event calendar for free and have the same SEO advantage in the search engines.

Like our slogan says, we want to help organizations bring people together face-to-face at events, seminars, and meetings.

Live Earth House Party

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending one of the many Live Earth house parties around the country.

The house party used practically all of the suggestions in our How to Host A House Party guide, and was very successful. It was a great networking opportunity for like-minded people to meet and discuss ways they can work together toward the goals of the Live Earth organizers.

The hosts had plenty of room for the nearly 60 people there. Everyone was encouraged to bring a dish, which guaranteed there would be enough food -- even though most people brought deserts.

When a house party has a set time period for a speaker's presentation or to view a DVD, it's easy to make sure every attendee sees and hears the organization's message. However, with the Live Earth concerts playing continually on two large TVs, it was difficult to ensure that the house party guests actually received the message.

To overcome this problem, these hosts handed out information sheets late in the evening to take home and read.

Whether you're looking for support for a political candidate or issue -- or you're trying to save the planet -- house parties are a great way to raise awareness and encourage action.

Face-to-Face Meeting is Still Best for Relationships

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We're all looking for better ways to connect with other people so we can have great experiences.

The options for electronic connections has grown tremendously from the telephone and e-mail to include instant messaging, SMS text messaging on our cell phones, and social networking Web sites like MySpace and Let's not forget about blogs, where comments can be a conversation. And, the newest way to share everything about your life, Twitter.

While most of these services can help grow online relationships, their most valuable uses are to share information and arrange face-to-face encounters with another person or group.

Tony Karrer links to a post by Kathy Sierra (Face-to-Face Trumps Twitter, Blogs, Podcasts, Video...) on attending the SXSW conference that covers online communicating. She said:

Bottom line: Face-to-Face matters, and the more people we meet online, the more people we now want to connect with offline.

She points out that one of the reasons people attend face-to-face events is the emotional energy of being around others who believe as you do. SXSW attendees believe in the power and benefits of online communication and media. And they came together face-to-face to learn from each other and support each other.

Face-to-Face meetings versus online meetings - reasons for each

Another powerful motivation for attending face-to-face events is physical touch. Whether it's a hardy handshake at business events or a friendly hug or kiss at social events, physical touch is key to great relationships.

By the way, she also listed 10 great ways to get people together face-to-face.

The chart highlights how to choose whether to hold an online event or a face-to-face event. If it's only for information sharing, especially among people who already know each other, hold the meeting online. However, if the attendees need to build relationships and become motivated, face-to-face is still the best way to meet.

So, when you’re deciding whether to have an online meeting or a face-to-face meeting, consider whether the relationships everyone will form are more valuable than everyone's cost of traveling to the meeting.

Be Prepared When the Roof Falls In

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Meeting organizers face interesting challenges as their event approaches. Take, for example, the situation faced by Cindy Klaverkamp, senior event planner for Creative Memories, who had a two-day regional convention with 300 Creative Memories consultants scheduled in Pittsburgh.

The collapse of some concrete flooring in Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center February 5 forced the facility to close temporarily and had several groups scrambling to find different venues or dates for their meetings.

The 6-inch-thick concrete floor in a loading area collapsed under the weight of a tractor-trailer, sending a mixture of concrete, steel, and equipment onto a public area below, and leaving the tractor-trailer trapped in a 20-by-60-foot hole in the floor/ceiling. No one was hurt.

Fortunately for Cindy, her vendors cooperated and she was able to move the event, acquire audiovisual equipment, and change a variety of other details that came up instantly.

This is an extreme example of the roof falling in, but it's always important to be able to contact vendors quickly.

One way to keep this data handy is to store vendor contact data in your SureToMeet Contacts area, then add them to a Contact Group called "Vendors." Wherever you are when you need a complete list of vendors and contact information, just log in and click over to your "Vendors" group.

You may never invite all of your vendors to a meeting or party (although Cindy might), but the SureToMeet contact manager can keep vendor contact data accessible from any Web browser.

Meeting Attendees Needs at Conferences and Events

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It seems that after attending a meeting or event, we come away feeling that there was more benefit in the networking than the presentations.

Every conference organizer tries their best to make every speaker relevant and beneficial for the audience, but frequently it just doesn’t turn out that way. I’ve been on plenty of conference planning committees – and have presented at lots of conferences and monthly meetings – so I’ve experienced the frustration from both sides.

The authors of We Have Always Done It That Way feel the same way:

Ask any conference attendee where the value is and you will most likely here, “in the hallways” or “at the social functions”. Why? Because this is the place where real-time business issues can be addressed.

They have some good ideas for helping attendees solve current problems by using the Web to improve networking before, during, and after a conference or event. They also have some good ideas on how to learn about attendee needs so speakers can present more of what the audience is looking for.

For us in event promotion, improving the benefits of an event gives us more to tell prospective attendees – and improves the likelihood that those who attend will come again in the future.

Put Al Gore in Your House

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Al Gore has recently become the face of the movement to reduce global warming with his film “An Inconvenient Truth.” In the film Al Gore shows a set of charts, graphs, and videos that make a compelling case that it’s time to alter lifestyles in order to save the Earth.

Many people who saw “An Inconvenient Truth” in theaters are looking for ways to share Al Gore’s message with their friends.

The easiest and most effective way to do this is to buy a copy of the DVD and hold a house party. Inviting friends and associates over to watch it together, followed by a group discussion, reaches people who wouldn’t have paid to see “An Inconvenient Truth” in theaters.

It you decide to host a house party showing of “An Inconvenient Truth” there are plenty of resources online to help you:

  • How to Host A House Party - Planning guide on how to plan and host a house party.
  • – A web site operated by fans of the movie and book "An Inconvenient Truth" to spread it's important message.
  • An Inconvenient Truth Educator's Resource - A section on, a community of film lovers and activists who are dedicated to engaging their minds, sharing their passions, and improving the world around them.
  • Climate Crisis - Official Web site and blog for the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.”
  • The Climate Project - A non-profit group that is training 1,000 lecturers who will present the information delivered in An Inconvenient Truth to audiences across America.

If you hold a house party to show “An Inconvenient Truth,” post a comment below and let us know how well it went.

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