Like many people writing first-person essays on the internet, I am a bit of an introvert. Networking at events has always seemed exhausting and inauthentic — you make small talk, exchange business cards and then…what? I know growing your network is important, but it’s hard for me to approach someone without a specific reason.
Luckily, I’ve discovered a good networking tactic for introverts: organizing conference calls and e-mail groups around specific questions.
Reaching out to people in your field is so much easier when you have something to talk about. I’ve enjoyed networking more since I’ve come to think of it as a group brainstorm — people who are trying to accomplish similar goals comparing notes. Having a jumping-off point for conversation just makes everything less awkward.
The best part is that this can work for almost any industry! People in every sector have a few thorny problems that they can’t solve alone, from community organizers to tax accountants. I’m going to talk about conference calls in this article, since that’s mostly what I’ve done in the past, but hosting an in-person seminar would be a great way to accomplish this as well.
First, choose a specific problem or topic in your specialty that people can benefit from sharing their expertise on. This doesn’t need to be a problem you can solve in a hour, or even a completely solvable problem, and it’s a good idea to make your topic relatively broad. For example, I’ve had conference calls about the challenges of membership marketing and about social media use in higher education. People love to share tips about what’s worked for them and to ask others about common problems — and to be honest, everyone loves to commiserate about the parts of their job that suck.
Find ten to fifteen other people in your specialty area at other organizations and reach out to them. If I’m looking for someone to talk to about fundraising in higher education, for example, I’d look for other similarly-sized schools, but I also might want to include some people in larger or smaller schools whose work I particularly admire. People who have a strong online presence (for example, they participate in Twitter chats about your industry or have a blog) are often good to have on the call. If you already have friends who work in your area of specialty, you can invite them as well. It’s always good to have a friendly voice on the line!
Ask your counterpart if they would like to join a conference call about this issue — if you’ve chosen a compelling problem, they will usually say yes. You can ask them if there’s a particular angle on the topic they want covered, or if they want to present some of their own findings in the area.
Do your best as the moderator of the call to ensure that everyone has a good experience. Send out an agenda beforehand, have everyone introduce themselves at the start of the call, and make sure that you have enough questions and ideas for the group to talk about. Ideally, everyone should leave the call with more information than when they came.
If everything’s gone well, suggest that the group keep in touch via an email distribution list (or a Slack channel, etc.). Once you’ve created an email distribution list, you won’t have to do all the work of keeping the group connected, because other people will have the ability to bring up new discussion topics and ideas. If you’re considering trying a new software tool, for example, you can ask the group what kind of success others have had with it and what pitfalls you should avoid. I’ve seen people use these email distribution lists to post jobs and look for candidates.
This can also be a great way to improve your experience at conferences. I’ve asked folks I’ve met through these calls about the best industry conferences to attend, and I’ve been able to meet up with some of them at said conferences. By sharing information about specific problems, you can also come up with ideas for a panel discussion or topics to submit to the conference organizers. It seems like a good way to transition into speaking at conferences rather than just attending them — though I haven’t done this yet!
Does hosting a conference call sound too stressful to you, or are there very few other people who do what you do? You can also reach out to people individually to get their opinion on an issue or topic! I’ve recently been working with a new piece of software that only about five other people in my area use. I reached out to each of them individually for some benchmarking data, and am now setting up a Google group for the five of us.
As an introvert, it can be stressful to try to break into established communities. Reaching out in this way offers people information that will help them be more effective in their work while introducing you as a member of their network. It’s a win-win situation, and that’s the best kind of networking.
Allison Bryant is a marketer and tree-hugger working in Rhode Island.
Image via Unsplash