- Business networking has been around for centuries, and building connections remains a crucial part of modern business.
- Networking practices continue to change and evolve, and the Covid-19 pandemic rapidly changed the way businesses promote their services and build connections.
- Networking now accommodates in-person and virtual events, and according to Austin Titus of Network Lead Exchange, the future of networking is likely to remain hybrid.
As long as there’s been business, there’s been networking.
The formal concept is relatively new in terms of time, but in terms of action, networking has been in business since Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations” a few months prior to Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the rest of the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain.
The Colonial era is appropriate for understanding networking’s beginnings.
Every city and small town in the 18th century contained various artisans and their apprentices. Whether it was a wheelwright, blacksmith, cooper, or any other trade, they all relied on each other to bring products to market and help customers. Despite customers being subject to essentially captive markets, the aristocrats still accessed the top artisans regardless of location. That’s why wealthy men like George Washington called on Paul Revere to design silver, as an example.
Networking was utility in those days – the people in a town had collective interest in working together. Their products and services helped each other and their customers.
However, the power of referrals would increase as the 19th century dawned and long-distance transportation eased. It became possible to develop business contacts not just throughout the country, but around the world. Customers no longer worked with geographic restrictions, and efficiency improvements phased artisans out of the marketplace.
As the 20th century dawned, business and networking became efficient.
Networking Prior to 2020
The post-war period is where networking’s formal title established itself.
Business owners sought utility in sharing ideas. Because travel became inexpensive, there existed massive return on investment for conventions. Meetings became commonplace. Sharing ideas and meeting people became the standard. A network’s value represented itself by a tool called the Rolodex. The fuller the Rolodex, the more connected a person was to their community and other businesses.
A Rolodex was the best place for having “a guy.” Whether it’s a plumber or an ad man, in the post-War period competition for referrals skyrocketed.
Mass production ended needs for formal apprenticeships in the trades. White collar work similarly went under a revolution of generalization. Where professionals held a de facto monopoly on services, the late 20th century showcased a world where people could walk down the street and choose from several of the same businesses.
How do customers choose who they give their business to?
The best way is word of mouth. A friend providing the business card goes farther than the cleverest advertisements could. In the world of B2B sales, networking proved especially important. How can brands grow if they’re not working with other businesses? With conventions, meetings, events, and everything else in between, professionals settled into a pattern of meeting, connecting, and referring.
Technology improved efficiency. Rolodexes became obsolete, replaced by the smartphone. LinkedIn provided virtual business cards. Relationships developed in the absence of actual face time. Networking organizations built themselves on the foundation of hosting events and inviting members to these events.
Then COVID-19 changed the world of networking the same way it changed every other part of our lives.
Those who are old enough to remember December 7, 1941 understand how quickly one day changes history. Similarly, those of us remembering September 11 appreciate how events change the world. While a date is hard to pinpoint, everyone remembers a time in March 2020 where our homes became isolation chambers. Unfortunately, bills still need to be paid. Accounts still need maintenance. Business doesn’t stop because people can’t meet face to face.
Networking changed because change asserted its necessity.
The tools existed. Instead of heading to a convention center, Zoom became the vehicle for face-to-face interactions. Social media, especially LinkedIn, increased its utility. Now people communicated through these social media platforms to maintain their connections. Of course, there was a learning curve. How many of us experienced Zoom lagging or someone forgetting to mute or unmute themselves? Several interesting things happened over virtual networking, and not all of which affected professionals negatively.
One example of positive change is people listened more.
When one person speaks at a time, others learn to listen. The distance abdicated the intimate tactile nature of conversation, but it increased people’s ability to listen to each other. Business leaders found themselves seeking to understand instead of hoping their ideas were understood. Though everyone was distant, we craved connections. Virtual conventions, virtual events, and social media were able stand-ins for the real thing.
Since we couldn’t connect in the traditional way, business evolved. Networking itself changed, and the mechanisms for referrals changed.
A few things didn’t change – people still sought connections. Referrals maintained and, in some cases, increased in value. Ideas became currency. Also increasing was the value of just connecting and talking. Relationships became personal, with people investing more in each other.
Once the worst of the pandemic appears in the rearview mirror, business itched to get back to its old ways. However, the great utility of virtual conventions and networking quickly found its place in today’s world.
A hybrid system informally built itself, and networking groups adapted to this new reality.
Some network members craved sharing the same space with their cohorts. Others remained reticent about large gatherings. This hybrid system quickly found adoption among all people interested in networking.
In fact, the best part about today’s hybrid system is convenience. Instead of requiring people to spend time away from families, virtual networking allows family time and at the same time, productivity. Furthermore, the ability to pick and choose how to attend events increased attendance. Because people felt like they could attend in ways best suited to them, they increased engagement when the new hybrid structure evolved.
Another feature of today’s hybrid networking is the tracking of referrals. Because the pandemic created a world reliant on technology, the adaptive nature of people made referrals work in this fashion. Today, there are several ways network leaders track referral activity in their networks. Furthermore, referrals are easier than ever to give. Tracking action taken on a referral is simple too.
Therefore, as networks look to the future, they see a world where the old and new schools connect.
The future of networking is a hybrid between face-to-face connections and virtual tools. The best networks position themselves at this crossroad. There are plenty of places where ambitious entrepreneurs find homes. So, embrace the principles of working together that started so many centuries ago, while using tools even great inventors like Benjamin Franklin never conceived, to build a connected world.
Interested in continuing the networking? Visit https://www.networkleadexchange.com/start-a-chapter today to learn more about starting a networking chapter or joining a group!
Austin Titus is the President of Network Lead Exchange, an online network of businesses designed to build referrals and connections. The platform also enables members to exchange ideas, share promotions and events, and access a network of service providers.