We've all been to the typical networking event. Show up in business casual (or a gingham shirt and jeans if you're in IT) and enter a room of people you don't know. Hopefully you've brought a coworker or a friend, and you guys hustle into an intimidating room. You grab your name tag and your drink tickets, and you try to look as important as you can while scoping out the scene.
After a couple seconds, you decide to grab a drink and then it happens. You get accosted by a service provider. Whether it's to open a bank account at Fifth Third bank (it's a vivid example because I'm still bitter about the hour and a half I lost trying to get out of that conversation) or to get health insurance for your employees through their company, these service providers suck all of the value and fun out of these traditional networking events. And most of these service providers come with extremely poor sales skills, on par with a mediocre 1970s used car salesman, to further rub salt in the networking wounds they've inflicted on you.
This version of "networking" is possibly the worst way to build meaningful relationships that create business value. Part of the reason is that many of these events are held in environments extremely close to that of an office. Furthermore, in an effort to create value and get people to show up, there's keynote speech after keynote speech and panel after panel. While there are situations and speakers who create tremendous value from a short talk at a networking event, what I've faced on numerous occasions is a speaker who brings a dry slide deck and reads every single slide to me, as if I'm in high school chemistry again.
This sort of environment doesn't draw the best people out there to come, as their time is valuable. What ends up happening is that more and more service providers show up and sponsor the events, and fewer business leaders attend. When less high value people are attending events, I'm pretty hard pressed to find a reason to attend when I know I'm just going to be bored or accosted by service providers.
I'm known for complaining about attending Atlanta Under 40 networking events, but I usually end up going when the venue is cool. Whether or not I meet someone who helps my business at an Atlanta Under 40 event, I've realized that the value I get is that it's usually a really good time to be at the event.
This is something that Darrah Brustein, founder of Atlanta Under 40, inherently understands. To get millennials to networking events, one must offer value other than the people one might meet. She tends to select incredibly cool venues that guarantee me that when I show up with a friend, whether or not I meet another person who will add value to my business, I will have fun. I can tell you that if we were sitting through a panel or a talk, I wouldn't be there.
In fact, I remember distinctly the previous event at Tongue & Groove (which you may recognize if you are into the Atlanta party scene or if you listen to Childish Gambino), I did not meet anyone who could immediately impact my business, but I did meet someone who I could connect to a friend to help both of them out, and I had a great time at the club the rest of the night. In fact, I don't think I've ever met someone at an Atlanta Under 40 event who's added value to my business, but I've always had a good time, and that keeps me going.
My final thoughts...
- To create a networking event that draws valuable people, having some sort of value there is an absolute must. Gone are the days that panels and speakers created that value, simply because the target market of these events is changing now that millennials are entering the workforce. We didn't like lectures in school, we liked group discussion and problem solving. Events need to be focused on putting people into groups to accomplish something, like volunteer work, or on allowing people to speak freely as opposed to structuring the event around a talk.
- If it's exclusive, I'm always going to attend. Exclusive means less service providers, and it means I feel important. One of my favorite networking events I attend is with a group of people who meet every month or two to hang out over dinner or Top Golf, but the fact that the group is invite-only means I know that I'll only meet people like the ones who invited me, so I can already tell that I'll like the new people who will attend.