Business owners often feel like they should be networking more but what sort of events work best and who should be running them?
I’ve tried to answer this question by outlining and critiquing four common event formats….
1. Generic Business Exhibitions
These sorts of events are most often run by public sector organisations or chambers of commerce who wish to be seen to ‘support business’ as a box-ticking exercise. Typically, they will be open to any sort of business exhibitor to rent a stand.
Events like these strongly self-select generic business services companies as exhibitors – companies such as lawyers, accountants and marketing agencies who can sell to the widest section of visitors. They are pretty much useless to companies selling to new or niche markets.
These events can make for a nice fun day away from the office but are rarely productive for either exhibitors or visitors. The exceptional few exhibitors who do make it work usually have a product so desirable that there are far better, more scalable means of promoting their services.
By about 2pm these are typified by a large number of tired people in suits aching to sit down. The only real winners are the event venues, roll-up banner printers and suit dry cleaners.
2. Industry-Specific Exhibitions
A.k.a. “plumbers’ conventions” – these events pack large numbers of similar businesses into a single hall and trade on exhibitors’ fear of missing out.
These exist in all industries and are the sorts of things you will see at Earls Court, ExCel or the NEC.
These events can be good for visitors who have a particular purchase in mind but they are very much dog-eat-dog for the exhibitors. They tend to attract 'tyre-kickers' rather than ideal customers who will love exhibitors' products.
Exhibit if you’re launching a new product and want to get feedback or talk to the press but be prepared to come away with no leads at all. They can work well as a focal point for meeting existing or prospective clients by prior arrangement: "I'll be at Exhibition X - come and say hi".
3. Presentation Lectures
Speeches from businesses who have ‘made it’ are a common sight at events as organisers aim to bask in the presenter’s reflected glory. In actual fact, such speakers rarely share any meaningful advice (least of all accounts of the mistakes they made) and attendees’ inspiration on the day can often fade into feelings of inadequacy afterwards.
Speakers at such events tend to have their own promotional (or egotistical) agenda or are being paid to speak – none of these motivations augur well for lasting impact on the audience.
If you’re going to go to these sorts of events, make sure you’re one of the speakers otherwise go watch The Apprentice instead!
4. Community and Ecosystem Events
These are events where the participants leave their sales patter at the door and focus on learning, sharing and getting to know each other properly.
These are by far the best sorts of events but they require participants to take a “rising tide lifts all boats” attitude instead of seeing business as a zero-sum game.
They tend to favour open networks in specific geographic-areas like cities, where there is a likelihood of the participants meeting regularly in the future.
Examples of such events include hackathons, art festivals, startup weekends, masterclasses and mentoring sessions. They are a common sight in startup communities and creative groups where participants share similar problems but are not in competition with each other.
The power of these events is that they help nurture communities far more and over a longer period of time than any other event format.
The idea of a business community can seem pretty oxymoronic when everyone is taking part in a race-to-the-bottom fight to sell stuff, but for innovative, creative and intellectual property-based businesses especially, they are an incredibly powerful way of sharing knowledge and growing local ecosystems collaboratively.
These sorts of networks are the secret sauce that give rise to Silicon Valleys or artistic movements. Crucially, these work best as self-organised events which are led by the participants and supported (but not led) by public sector organisations.
Leicester Comedy Festival, now in it's 23rd year, is a brilliant example of an ecosystem event. As well as being a vehicle for top-class established comedians, it helps nurture new talent, supports venues all over the city and is a fantastic PR and economic draw for the Leicester.
Next time you consider attending a business event, ask yourself why the exhibitors or presenters are there. If you don’t like the answer, then it’s probably time to run your own event. It’s surprisingly easy to do and you can start small using tools such as Meetup.com or Eventbrite.
Aim to build (or contribute to) a community rather than just hosting a one-off event. Focus on something that helps your whole industry rather than just your particular profession.
For example, a plumber is far more likely to attract homeowners if there are electricians and kitchen fitters at the event too. Encourage advice-sharing rather than hard-selling.
If you're a public sector officer, why not get to know and support the ringleaders of existing groups better instead of running expensive generic events yourselves? Your efforts will be far better targeted and will support people who have a long-term vested interest in the success of your area.