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Reaching out: How the face of business networking is evolving for a digital age

PUBLISHED: 06:30 21 March 2018 | UPDATED: 08:50 21 March 2018

Is traditional networking losing its charm? 
Picture: Bill Smith

Is traditional networking losing its charm? Picture: Bill Smith

Archant © 2005

Amid competition from social media, how do you keep businesspeople interested in meeting each other face to face? Bethany Whymark reports on the new trends in networking.

Chris Sargisson, Norfolk Chamber of Commerce chief executive., with Chamber staff at their Norwich office. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLYChris Sargisson, Norfolk Chamber of Commerce chief executive., with Chamber staff at their Norwich office. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

When someone says “networking event”, what do you imagine? Lots of suits, an English breakfast, polished sales pitches followed by the all-important business card exchange?

As time-honoured as this image is, it is becoming less relevant as organisations strive to make their events more interesting and accessible.

From avocado on toast and pizza parties to trampolining tasters, “physical networking” in East Anglia is upping its game to compete with digital alternatives like LinkedIn.

Huw Sayer, founder of communications agency Business Writers, got into networking when he went freelance 15 years ago and is now a strong advocate for the activity.

“That’s when I learnt that the deeper and broader your network, the more likely it is to generate interesting leads and business opportunities,” he said.

Huw Sayer, founder of Business Writers, is an advocate of 'physical' networking. Picture: SuppliedHuw Sayer, founder of Business Writers, is an advocate of 'physical' networking. Picture: Supplied

“The old style networking of one-minute elevator pitches and swapping business cards is giving way to a more relaxed process of social networking, which calls for more ‘soft’ skills.”

Norfolk Chamber of Commerce hosts masterclasses to help people develop a “strategy” for networking – an activity often intimidating to new kids on the block.

The organisation is a strong believer in traditional, physical networking – and the popularity of its business breakfasts and conferences are evidence that its delegates believe in it too.

But chief executive Chris Sargisson says the “digital and technology revolution” taking place in business will affect the landscape.

“Doing business is all about relationships, whether it be with your co-workers, clients or peers. A good client relationship begins with face-to-face contact and the easiest way to start it is by networking,” he said.

A NewGen networking event at the Rooftop Gardens in Norwich. Picture: Sarah FishA NewGen networking event at the Rooftop Gardens in Norwich. Picture: Sarah Fish

“I believe that digital will drive change in the way we interact and communicate. It will not replace traditional networking, but enhance it – a hybrid will be born.”

Amanda Ankin, operations director at Suffolk Chamber, said the organisation recognised businesses’ “changing expectations and needs” with the variety of event formats and times of day in its networking calendar.

“Like our members, we know that ultimately people buy from people and face-to-face networking is the single most effective way of building such long term relationships,” she said.

Next-generation female networking

Segregating networking by gender can be contentious – let alone by age as well.

A networking event at Depen Care Farm hosted by Ipswich-based ethical networking group I Roll Up My Sleeves. Picture: Stephen EltonA networking event at Depen Care Farm hosted by Ipswich-based ethical networking group I Roll Up My Sleeves. Picture: Stephen Elton

But a popular, growing group in Norwich is making a success out of just that.

NewGen is for junior female professionals under 35. Affiliated with the Norfolk Business Women’s Network, NewGen’s committee puts the group in opposition to traditional networking – informality is the name of the game.

Since launching almost a year ago, the group has tried trampolining, skiing, cake decorating and a CSI-inspired forensics evening.

The NewGen committee said its events aim to “create a relaxed atmosphere in which people can build long lasting relationships”.

“The way in which people network has evolved. People still recognise the importance of creating strong relationships but we have seen first-hand that this works better where they are formed organically and not in a forced environment,” a spokeswoman said.

Kieran Miles is starting a networking group for his generation, the millennials. Picture: Paul Harrison PhotographyKieran Miles is starting a networking group for his generation, the millennials. Picture: Paul Harrison Photography

When networking gets ‘ethical’

Amy Graham and her partner Glenn Hoddy, champions of “ethical networking”, are set to bring their concept from Suffolk to Norfolk this year.

They set up Ipswich-based social enterprise I Roll Up My Sleeves in April last year, which hosts networking events during which business people lend their support to small local charities for practical jobs that the charities and their beneficiaries may find hard to complete themselves, from gardening to building chicken coops.

Last year the group helped 10 local charities – from those supporting disadvantaged or disabled adults to animal care organisations – with 33 events across Suffolk and north Essex.

It is set to launch in Norfolk in April with a two-day event to repaint Thurne Mill in the Broads.

Ms Graham said: “Our events help charities that need the manpower, not the money, to get larger jobs done and businesses are connecting at the same time.”

Technology and avocados: millennial networking

Many jokes have been made about the millennial love affair with avocados – but a new Norwich networking group is hoping to capitalise on this phenomenon.

The Avocado Club – set to hold its first meeting on March 29 – is styled for a younger crowd of “digital nomads” and aims to offer an alternative to the fry-ups and pastries which normally adorn networking breakfast tables. It was founded by Kieran Miles, 27, chief executive of communications company KakeCo.

He said: “I, like many of my peers, were looking for a new type of business breakfast, one with healthy food and different conversation. A place where we can chat about cryptocurrencies and technology whilst doing one of my generation’s favourite pastimes: eat avocado on toast.

“I have friends who are artists, social media influencers, hackers and up and coming directors, who want a whole new experience for connecting offline.”

Playing around: networking and board games

For Tom Haczewski, founder of user experience consultancy The User Story in Norwich, casual and comfortable socialising was at the top of the agenda when he designed his networking event St George’s Tabletop.

The event was designed to bring together people based in co-working space St George’s Works on Colegate, including Mr Haczewski and his team, and others for a relaxed evening of board games.

After two advertised gatherings on event organisation site Meetup.com it now has around 40 members – and Mr Haczewski says the feedback from attendees has been positive.

“People liked the fact that it was a different format to what they were used to, and also the fact that people were playing games meant they got to know each other a little bit better,” he said.

“We are still playing around with the idea, but we are hoping it will become a regular event.”

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