NAMM has come and gone and people continue to ask me questions about how to successfully network without trade shows. They’re all valid questions, but the premise is slightly misleading. It presumes that “real” networking only happens at designated times and events—but I would argue that is the farthest from the truth. Real networking opportunities happen every day, all year—independent of time, space, or location.
So to look at this objectively, it’s fair to ask, is attending a trade show really networking? Yes and no; it depends on the focused work that you put into it. A trade show condenses an ecosystem into a defined space and time. For example, NAMM brings together manufacturers, dealers, distributors, rep firms, reps, artists, engineers, backline technicians, production companies, producers, managers, press and consumers all under one roof in the space of a few days. It’s hyper-condensed, so we tend to put a lot of stock into those few days.
Actually, that’s not why we like it, or why we miss it so much these days. We work in a small industry and NAMM lets us catch up with friends and acquaintances. We like it because it is an annual event to look forward to, where we gather from places all over the country and the world.
But even within a space filled with over 100,000 opportunities from every nation, most of the time we go and we look for people that we already know. We go out to dinner and drinks with friends we already have.
We don’t need a trade show for that. Yes, relationship building is important and fun, but that is not the same as building relationships with new people—so here’s some actionable advice.
Do not wait until shows or events come back to catch up with industry friends. Make a mental list of the people you like to visit at NAMM and call them directly this week. Make a point to call and check in again before next NAMM. Make staying in touch a habit. Just pick up the phone and call every now and then—trade stories and laughs.
Now for the harder part: Actively seek out new people. Put yourself in situations where you get to meet strangers and make new friends. This is true at trade shows and this is true every day.
I’m not advocating for you to just wander around aimlessly hoping to randomly bump into someone new; just walking looking for someone to open a door for you is not a plan. You need to do your pre-show work, you need to go into it prepared, and you need to hit the floor already knowing who you want to meet.
That planning is the real work and it takes weeks of preparation and commitment. Meeting people that you normally don’t have access to is why you attend trade shows! Here’s how I do my pre-show prep; this is what I do before I attend any show or event, and it works in every situation. By the way, all of this can easily be applied to the digital space, too. I’m going to focus on live trade shows so that we have the specific tools when they come back online, but get creative with how you apply these.
- Think about who you know in the general geographic area. Use the show as an excuse to reach out. Mention that you will be at so-and-so event and ask if they’ll be there too. Invite them to come along or to meet for a coffee/drink/lunch.
- Research the event and look up who will be there. Pay attention to all facets. Look at vendor lists, exhibitors and speaker bios.
- Scan to see if you recognize anyone who is attending. If you do, reach out. Say hello and mention that you are looking forward to catching up at the show.
- Make notes about interesting people who caught your eye while researching. Think about why you’d like to meet them and make notes about what you’d like to accomplish with their help. Then reach out.
- Reach out to as many people in advance as you can. Give this the time it deserves.
- And what do you do when no one writes you or texts you back? When no one responds? Absolutely nothing. It is OK. People are busy. Don’t take it personally. You made the effort. You took care of the bits you can control. And next time, write shorter emails when reaching out! It’s an art form. Three short sentences is already too long!
Next time we’re all heading to an event together, reach out to me ahead of time and I promise I’ll make time to grab a coffee and talk shop.
Mike Dias writes and speaks about What Entertainers Can Teach Executives and Why Nobody Likes Networking. He is the executive director for the In-Ear Monitor International Trade Organization and the vice president of sales for Earthworks Audio. He loves to trade stories, to talk shop, and to hear about your networking successes and failures! firstname.lastname@example.org.