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How to start networking from the ground up

Last week, I wrote a post about the importance of networking outside the four walls of your company.

Like others, I maintain this is an essential and critical strategy to bolstering your career trajectory–and to help your current company in many different ways.

In the post, I wondered aloud why so many people ignore this advice. And instead, choose to stay put and rarely network, save the times when they need a network (i.e., losing a job).

Coffee shop

A few people made the point: Maybe some folks don’t know *how* to network.

A point I hadn’t really thought of.

But, it’s probably spot on.

Because most people do want to be the best employee they can be. And, they want to improve their career options.

So, it makes sense.

In light of that, I thought I’d take the time today to offer up my advice on this topic–HOW to network.

I don’t profess to be an expert networker–far from it, in fact. But, I do, essentially, get PAID to network. It makes a lot of business sense for me to know a TON of people. And, for those people to think good things about me, when they think of me.

So, if I had to start networking from the ground up, here’s what I’d do:

Organize regular coffee meetings

I’d take a five-step approach.

Step one: Take stock of your existing network

Everyone has a network. Friends. Family. People at church. People you play softball with. Others you camp with. Sit down and write down EVERYONE you know. Start a list. You’ll probably be surprised how many people are on it.

Step two: Start with your inner circle

Tick down this master list and put “stars” next to the people you would deem in your “inner circle.” Those people you trust the most. Those people you would confide in. Those people you would ask for advice. These are the people you’re going to ask to coffee first.

Step three: Think about your approach

My networking approach: Very casual. I want people to feel at ease with me. So, I ask a lot of questions at coffees. I don’t talk about myself, unless asked. And, I try to appear happy, laid back (yet motivated) and outgoing. I know that sounds kinda stiff and lame, but it pays to think about your approach to these meetings. Do you want to appear more formal, or take a more laid back approach? Are you going to take notes? Will you dress up? What about your appearance? All things to consider with your overall approach. Remember, these meet-ups will start to define people’s impressions and perceptions about you–make sure they start to think what you want them to think.

Step four: Preparation and follow-up

Next up–ask these inner circle folks to coffee. But, don’t just get together with them and “have coffee.” Treat it like a business meeting. Start by preparing. Find out what they’ve been up to lately–new job? Family news? Passion projects? Start a list of 3-5 business-related questions you can ask these folks. You don’t want to be too formal with your prep, but you want to be prepared. After the coffee, practice your follow-up. Send them a note, thanking them for their time. Throw in a couple links to stories or items you talked about in your meeting.

Step five: Ask for 2-3 introductions from your inner circle

Here’s where the “networking” piece really comes in. Ask your inner circle folks to introduce you to 2-3 additional folks from their networks who they think you might benefit in meeting. Might be someone in your industry. Might be someone completely outside your industry–but someone who might be interesting to meet for different reasons. Whatever the case, this is where things really take off. Let’s say you have just 5 people in your inner circle. If those five people refer you to 3 people each, that’s 15 new coffee meet-ups for you! And, keep in mind, these are “warm intros”–so you’ll have at least one point of commonality with the people you’ll be meeting up with (your common friend).

Only use larger “networking” events as conduits to more coffee meet-ups

I’ve written about this before, but the infamous “networking event” is the most over-rated event ever. Think about the scene: 100 people on a rooftop in Uptown Minneapolis. Within an hour, most have had at least one drink. Many are talking to people they already know. Many conversations last 5 minutes or less. Does that sound like the kind of environment where you can really make an impression on someone? My approach to these events: Use them as a way to organize more one-on-one coffee meet-ups. Try to meet new people at these events at all costs. Don’t be afraid to stick out your hand and introduce yourself. After all, isn’t that why you’re there? It’s certainly why other people are there. Meet people. Get contact info. And follow up with those people you think were moderately interesting, and ask them to coffee.

Think about your “soft” networking events

Networking doesn’t have to just happen in a coffee shop or at industry events. It can happen at church. Or, camping. Or, on the boat. For me, my “soft” networking events happen in a few different venues: 1) On the golf course, 2) Camping, and 3) At sporting events. Golfing is a huge one for me. Think about the scene. I get 3-4 UNINTERRUPTED HOURS with an individual doing something I love doing (and hopefully, something they love doing, too). That’s actual networking gold. A close second would probably be sporting events. I attended numerous Minnesota Timberwolves games this year with many different people. Those were all opportunities for me to get to know these folks a bit better–in a scene that’s NOT the workplace. So, think about your soft networking opportunities. Could be volunteering at your kids school. Could be church-related activities. Could be working out. All represent an opportunity to meet new people in a different kind of setting.

Get creative and leverage scale

One thing I love to do is create my own networking opportunities–at scale. I’ve done it many times in the last seven years. A few years back, I tried organizing semi-regular happy hours where I’d invite 5-6 “inner circle” friends and ask them to bring a friend I didn’t know. Worked beautifully. I met new people. My friends met new people. And, we had a lot of fun along the way. More recently, I started a corporate communicator mastermind group here in Minneapolis. We get together every other month for a business meeting followed by dinner. What a great way to meet up with 10-12 of the smartest communicators in Minneapolis–while delivering tremendous value for them. I have another big idea in the works for this fall–but you’ll have to wait for more details on that one 🙂 Think about how you can get creative, once you’ve sharpened your networking powers. How can you create group environments to leverage scale and meet more than one person, while still keeping things fairly intimate.

That’s my advice. Hope it helps a bit. Any other tips you’d share?

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When relaunching a new web site actually IS news

By now, most of us have been in the following situation.

“We’re revamping our web site–this is big news! Shouldn’t we write up a news release and alert the media?”

“Yeah, I mean, we now have a more ‘mobile-friendly’ site–that’s news, right?”

“And we completely changed our navigation and added bigger, splashier photos, too!”

Strib Target

 

And what has our answer been (especially the last 5-6 years in this age of “what have you done for me in the last 3 seconds?”): Re-launching a new web site is NOT news. Not in this environment. Not anymore. Not really, ever.

Except, if you’re Target.

When you’re Target, and you’re one of the biggest companies in town, everything is news. Even when you relaunch a “mobile” web site.

Because that seems to be what Target did this weekend. My “proof”: The front page of Saturday’s Star Tribune business section (see above).

This is a little comical for a few reasons (with quotes right from the story):

  • “Target Corp. has long had different websites for smartphones, tablets and desktops. Now, it’s cut them down to just one site that can be viewed from any device.” Now, I’m no “web expert”, but isn’t that called “responsive design”? And, hasn’t that concept been around for like 4-5 years?
  • “For consumers, the most apparent changes are less text on the home-page and more pictures and a more visual experience.” Breaking news, folks. Customers respond to visuals!
  • “So many guests shop in different platforms. Having an experience that looks similar across those things is more intuitive. We know that’s what guests want.” Is that quote from 2013?

I don’t mean to rail on Target. And I’m not even saying this was the wrong thing to do. After all, when you’re Target, and you’re one of the biggest companies in town and you’re a huge employer in downtown Minneapolis, ANYTHING you do is news. Including launching a new web site. I don’t fault them for that at all (Note: the real story here is how Target is trying to make advancements on the tech side, an area of their business where they are really trying to focus at the moment and make up ground vs. the Amazons of the world).

But, I do think this is a continued cautionary tale for all other brands who have names that don’t start with “Target” or “Walmart” or “Amazon.” Despite the story here, re-launching a new web site ISN’T news. Very few people care about your new mobile app. No one even knows that you just adopted responsive design. It’s just not newsworthy (again, unless you’re one of the biggest companies in town).

Save your pitches folks.

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The not-so-hidden reason staying within the four walls of your company is a really bad idea

In a previous life, I spent my days working for a large health care organization based here in Minneapolis.

I had taken the job as a “step back”. As a way to get a better handle on my career, and survive those early years with my kids (young parents—you’ll relate).

But, one thing I found fascinating about this health care company and its marketing/communications function was this: Most people did seem to see any reason to network beyond its four walls.

Coffee Meetup

No one said that, in those certain terms. But, they didn’t have to. Their actions spoke much louder than words.

Very few people joined and participated in professional associations like PRSA and AMA.

Very few people had semi-regular coffee meet-ups with people outside our industry.

In fact, the only time I really saw people networking and grabbing coffee when was layoffs were imminent and people were fighting for their jobs.

I’ll give you another example locally: Target.

If you work in the Twin Cities, chances are you know someone who works at Target.

But, when was the last time you had a networking coffee with anyone from Target?

When was the last time you saw someone from Target at an industry event?

I’m not saying it never happens. All I’m saying is you don’t see as many people from Target attending industry events as you do from other organizations in town (they do most of their networking WITHIN Target).

It’s a common issue for folks at large corporations: They fail to network outside the four walls of their organization.

Why?

Lots of reasons.

1 – I have my “dream job” (or some form of it). Why do I even need to network?

2 – I’m too busy. I don’t have time to network.

3 – I know enough people—I don’t need to expand my network.

To those people, I would say: See you in the unemployment line (OK, I’m being dramatic–I couldn’t help myself).

Networking is the lifeblood of any successful PR and marketing professional. Who you know is every bit as important (and I would argue more so, in many cases) than what you know.

And it’s not all about jobs either. Networking is a critical component of professional development, too. You know, that whole “improving yourself” thing.

In fact, I would argue networking outside your organization’s four walls could be seen as a core requirement for all employees as a professional development strategy.

Think about the benefits to the organization:

1: More new ideas from outside the organizations. So many orgs suffer from a prevalent “this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality. Networking with others gives you insight into how other industries and companies address common marketing challenges.

2: More access to talent. What’s the first thing any corporate team does when a new job comes open on its team? They ask “Who do we know that might be a fit?” Everyone pings their networks to see if they have a friend or colleague that might be interested. Wouldn’t it be helpful if you had a few people on your team that had expansive networks, in this case?

3: More access to vendors. See #2 above–except substitute “talent” for “vendors.” Exact same situation. Before you start interviewing agencies, wouldn’t it be helpful to have a few people weigh in on those agencies based on personal experience and their networks’ personal experiences?

Now, the jobs piece, which is more confounding to be honest.

Why people refuse (or ignore) to network outside the four walls of their company has always seemed a bit odd to me.

Here’s how I think about this:

When I worked on the corporate side, I took every job knowing full well we operate in an “at will” employment environment. That means: A company can hire and fire me whenever they like (essentially). And, I can leave whenever I want.

I knew that people (good people) get fired all the time. Sometimes through layoffs. Sometimes through reorgs. Sometimes by way of performance.

So, if that’s the case, I wanted to give myself the best chance to survive those (impending) layoffs (and if you think it’s weird I use “impending” go ask your friends how many of them have been laid off once in their careers. You’ll see a bunch of hands go up).

The best way to make sure you are inherently employable isn’t merely to “do a great job at work” (although that certainly is a component of it). It’s also means you have to have a solid, extended network.

Because, if you get laid off, what’s the first thing you’re doing? Calling on your network for help.

So, doesn’t it make sense to ensure you have a large network that is motivated to help you when you need that help?

This is exactly why when I was working on the corporate side, I made the extra effort to build and nurture my network. That meant organizing coffees before work. Attending industry events. Reaching out to folks on LinkedIn and Twitter.

All that paid off in a big way when I was looking for my next opportunity. I asked people in my network questions about starting a solo business. Asked others about social/digital opportunities in the local market. Asked yet others for help with connections.

And, for the most part, they all said “yes” and helped. Why? Because I had put in the time on the front end through coffees, industry events and other communications.

Yeah, networking is a lot of work. It takes a lot of time.

But you know what? It may also end up saving your career. Or, making it more lucrative. Or, extending it by 5-10 years.

Go forth people. Network. You’ll thank me later.

photo credit: End of the conversation…… via photopin (license)

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Is LinkedIn really broken?

Last week, I saw the following post from Augie Ray, research director at Gartner, in my LinkedIn feed.

LinkedIn Broken

 

I wasn’t surprised to see this kind of post from Augie. He’s railed against LinkedIn before. But, this time, he put a finer point to his frustration by calling out specific items he believes have led/are leading to LinkedIn’s demise.

And that got me thinking: Is LinkedIn really broken?

Up until now, I’ve kindly ignored Augie’s comments about LinkedIn because, for me, LinkedIn has been a great tool to: 1) Establish and enhance reputation, 2) Research new clients/contacts, and 3) Keep in touch with former and current colleagues.

But, looking at the list above from Augie, I started to agree with him…a little. But, I still believe LinkedIn has great value.

Here’s the way I see it:

The top-of-the-feed videos are getting old–fast.

LI 1

The post above next to Steve Clarke is hardly abnormal. In fact, 9 out of 10 times I open my LinkedIn feed lately, I see a useless video at the top of the page. This prioritizing of video content is hardly useful–in fact, in many cases, it has nothing to do with the professional world (especially in the area of new jobs or professional development, which is what most people use LinkedIn for). This has been a huge nuisance for the last couple months. Probably not a reason I would stop using LinkedIn, but it’s definitely clouding my perception at the moment.

Where did the notifications for promotions and job changes go?

This is one area where I completely agree with Augie and his note above. Work anniversaries and birthdays do seem to be the focus now on LinkedIn. You’ll see them in the upper-right-hand corner on your desktop feed, and in the “network” tab on the mobile app. Recognizing birthdays and work anniversaries is fine–it does give me info I can use to reconnect with a former colleague or connection. But, those job changes were a huge deal–and I don’t see those as often anymore. Knowing when someone made a big job change is critical for a number of reasons: 1) Gives you a chance to reconnect/offer congratulations, 2) Maybe you’d like to explore the possibility of working with/for your friend in her/his new role, or 3) Maybe you might be interested in the job your friend left open when he/she left that position. Still not sure why they aren’t prioritizing this information–seems absolutely critical to user experience to me.

Why do they keep taking key pieces of functionality away?

Augie mentions Answers and Events, which I find odd, since I never used those. But, I do agree with his premise–why does LinkedIn keep killing functionality that is actually useful? In my case, it’s the “Connections” tab and the ability to sort through your connections by a variety of criteria. In the previous world (and by that, I mean like 3 months ago), you could filter your connections by location (very helpful), job and employer. But, recently they stripped all that away (maybe it’s part of the “premium” package now–I don’t know). That was a huge loss for me, as I frequently used that functionality to sift through my connections to find people who might be good fits for current job openings friends pass my way.

LinkedIn publishing has been a boon

One thing Augie neglected to talk about was LinkedIn Publishing–which has been an absolute boon for me (and many others). This tool has given many folks a chance to establish authority and enhance reputation with their professional networks. For me, I could make a pretty good argument that my posts get more traction on LinkedIn now than on my blog! In addition, I’m constantly sourcing posts from LinkedIn for my weekly e-newsletter–so I’m learning and growing by reading what others are posting about, too. Huge win for LinkedIn here.

Jobs tab still prevalent

Educated guess: 80% of all people who use LinkedIn do it to find a new job. Probably higher, really, but I wanted to be conservative for the sake of this conversation. And, the Jobs tab fills that need. It’s very easy to set up an alert for jobs you are interested in. Even though I’m NOT looking for a job, I check this frequently, as I include open positions from LinkedIn in the Talking Points e-newsletter every Friday. I do think LinkedIn could find ways to work this info into your feed, or home page, a bit better. But overall, this is the primary reason people are using LinkedIn–and the information is easy to get to and helpful.

I wish LinkedIn would serve up more targeted ad content

Say what you will about Facebook’s ad products, they target the hell out of you. Now, Facebook knows much more about you and your personal preferences than LinkedIn. But, sometimes I wish LinkedIn would serve me up more targeted and relevant ad content. Right now, I get ads like this:

LI Visa

This example is all too common. Products and offers that aren’t all that relevant to me. Again, not a huge deal. But definitely annoying.

Some of their recent new offerings actually are useful

Augie talks about how core features are broken. That hasn’t been the case for me. In fact, I’ve noticed that LinkedIn is adding new functionality that could be potentially very useful. Case in point: The new ProFinder functionality (found under the “Interests” tab). Designed to help you find a professional to help fill your need, it’s like a professional service form of airbnb. I haven’t used it yet, but on the surface, it appears that it would be helpful.

That’s my take. Overall, LinkedIn is still working for me. I access it every day.

You?

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The real reason the PR agency model is broken

I’m not a career agency guy. I didn’t cut my teeth at Spong. I didn’t work my way up from intern to VP at Weber. I just don’t have a ton of experience in the agency world.

But, I did spend time at two agencies earlier in my career (Concept Group–a small marcom shop in St. Paul, and Beehive–a PR shop in St. Paul).

And I can tell you this: The agency billing model is broken.

Broken

Sure, we’ve read all about this before. And sure, it’s probably not changing any time soon.

But, most of the articles I’ve read don’t touch on the REAL reason the model is broken.

It doesn’t reward your top performers.

Think about it. Agencies make money when they win big accounts. Big accounts = more billable hours. More billable hours = more money for agency owners.

But not necessarily more money for top performers.

Sure, top performers raise up the ranks faster than others. They might earn more money in the long-term due to their work ethic, ingenuity and innovative spirit.

But, they’re not rewarded on a day-to-day basis for those things. In fact, the system actually rewards those who work SLOWER and more INEFFICIENTLY.

Take the following scenario.

Let’s say Joe needs to write a blog post for a client. Joe is a high performer, so he’s pretty darn efficient. He can bang out the post in 5 hours, including research, writing time and editing.

Sue, on the other hand, is a middle-of-the-road employee. For the same request, Sue can write the post in 10 hours.

Who made the agency more money? Sue, right? 10 hours vs. 5 hours.

What’s more, Joe was efficient. So, his reward for that efficiency? TAKE ON MORE WORK! BILL MORE HOURS! MAKE US MORE MONEY!

That’s a broken system, ladies and gentleman.

I know I’m simplifying it immensely, but at the crux of it, that’s the problem as I see it.

Now, I don’t know what the solution is. And, truth be told, I don’t care. Thankfully, I don’t run an agency–and I don’t have any aspirations of doing that any time soon.

All I can do is tell you it’s broken.

I’ll let the agency owners figure it out.

photo credit: days of our lives via photopin (license)

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