Networking is a crucial component of success in the media business. As much as the programmatic folks might want to diminish the impact of relationships, the advertising and marketing business is primarily driven by them.
At the same time, digital technologies have completely changed how we cultivate and maintain relationships, so it’s natural that networking groups have sprung up everywhere for people in the marketing and advertising business. Options might range from discussion lists to fully-blown membership organizations that feature offline meetups, seminars and other benefits. So, how do we decide which groups to join and which to pass on?
Having founded a networking group in the early 2000s, I’ve stumbled across a few factors that tend to predict whether or not a member gets adequate value out of a networking group. So here are some questions that you might want to ask yourself before committing to a new networking group in our business:
What is the mission of the group?
It’s always a good idea to ask about the mission of a networking group before you seriously consider joining it. Less serious groups won’t have a mission at all, but you also need to watch out for any group that has an incongruity between its name and its mission. You might find that a group that was founded to help educate people in the business about mobile technology hasn’t put on an educational seminar in months and is evolving into something else entirely. Good networking groups tend to have solid mission statements and their members are aligned in their perceptions of what the group is supposed to accomplish.
Does the group make money? If so, how?
Some networking groups are a labor of love for somebody. Others are designed to make money. Both types can be very valuable to your networking relationships, but you need to be cognizant of how the group runs its operations. Remember the old adage – If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. It’s not that free groups can’t be valuable – they can. It’s just that if somebody else is underwriting your participation, you may find yourself having to fend off a deluge of pitches or requests for meetings from vendors. I’ve found that some of the most valuable groups charge some sort of membership fee. Not only does it encourage participation from members, but it also serves as a “no bozo” fee for spammers and their ilk.
What are the membership criteria?
Tight membership criteria can make or break a networking group. Of particular interest should be whether or not the membership can provide value to you at the current stage of your career. Will the membership be too senior or too junior to be encountering some of the same issues you might seek their advice on? Does the group seek out experts or people who are outstanding in their field? Or is it open to anyone who will pay the membership fee? Your mileage may vary depending on how well the membership aligns with your current experience and role.
What makes a good member?
You may want to ask a member of any group you’re considering joining what the characteristics of a good member are. You might be surprised at what the group expects of its members. One group I once considered wanted each member to spend time helping members who were unemployed secure new positions. That’s a very noble goal, but it wasn’t one that was spelled out to prospective members, and may have been a surprise to anyone who had just joined.
A good member also takes advantage of the benefits a networking group can offer, hopefully getting a greater benefit than the sum of their contributions. You need to understand whether or not you’ll be able to put in the time and effort required to capitalize on any benefits. Putting aside networking groups for a moment, I like to reflect on my membership in any organization when it comes up for renewal, and think about whether I’ve managed to capitalize on member benefits during the last several months. Whether it’s AAA or a club dedicated to a hobby, I always ask myself whether I’ve received enough benefits to justify continuing. You may want to ask existing members whether they felt like they got their investment back, or whether they had to jump through too many hoops to benefit from their membership.
Any good stories?
Any networking group worth its salt has a good collection of success stories in the format “I was able to accomplish [X] because of my membership.” The group I founded would collect testimonials from members who had gotten a job as the result of their membership, or about the company owned by a member that was able to secure a round of investment thanks to the group. If the group is achieving its mission, it should be able to showcase some solid successes.
Can You Lurk before You Leap?
Many networking groups have trial memberships or probationary periods, during which prospective members can decide whether the group is for them or not. Always ask about whether you can check out what the experience is like before you commit to membership. You might be surprised by a group’s willingness to let you kick the tires first.
Think about some of these questions the next time a networking group asks you to join. You might save yourself some time and effort that could be invested better elsewhere.
Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.