Build Your Network in 52 Lunches a Year

Originally posted on Popforms on May 29th, 2014

When my company, Mixpo, brought the communications function in-house and I was promoted to Director of Communications, our consultant and my mentor Jolie Hunt told me that in order to be successful in Communications, it’s all about relationships. (Personally I think we can swap out “Communications” for “Life” and say, in order to be successful in life, it’s all about relationships – but that’s for another post).

To emphasize her point, she gave me the following challenge: Have lunch every week with someone I don’t know. This someone could be a reporter, customer, industry expert, PR professional, or anyone else I could learn from.

And so I did.

The Process

First I identified whom I wanted to meet. I made a list of local, trade and national reporters and a list of customers, industry experts, trade organizations, company stakeholders, and public relations professionals. I segmented the list by geography and by how well I knew them so that I could start with the easy ones first. Though filling out a huge spreadsheet might sound like a daunting or even boring process, it actually is fun to constantly think of people I’d love to meet and update my list of future contacts.

I did outreach through email, Twitter DMs, and LinkedIn. I discovered that everyone operates differently. I started by emailing people I knew directly to ask them to meet up, and I sent LinkedIn messages or Twitter DM’s to 2nd degree connections. A few said yes right away, particularly friends of mine in communications. Meeting with them was so rewarding, that it made it easy to keep reaching out to others.

It’s a good reminder that although many people complain about coffee meetings or are bad about returning emails (which can make sending out invitations feel a bit disheartening), not everyone is this way – there are lots of people who are excited to connect and who are proactive about setting things up. It is all about gaining momentum and being super responsive to the people who want to meet.

Next I asked mentors, coworkers, and friends to make introductions for me. This was really fun. Not only did I get to reconnect with mentors and friends to talk about my new role, but I also got to find out who they respected in the communications field and in the advertising industry, which widened my net of amazing people to reach out to.

I was so impressed with the speed in which these warm introductions led to a meeting. In life, personal connections count, so if you can get an introduction versus sending out a cold email, you should aim to get the intro if you can. Your response rate will be much higher, and the person will already be primed to want to know you since you know a person in common.

Plus, these meetings not only taught me about the field and industry, but also about the person that introduced me to this new connection. Who they chose told me about their values, their interests, and what they think is most important about our industry, which helps me to know them better as a person too.

Anytime I met someone new over email, I would invite him or her to meet in person. Since most of the reporters, customers, and industry analysts I work with are based in New York, I’d mention that it would be great to meet them in person the next time I was in New York or the next time they were in Seattle. This then makes it very easy to send a follow-up email before a trip.

It’s much easier to make that connection right when you meet and set a tentative plan in motion than to send an email 6 months later asking, “Do you remember me?”.

After scheduling a meeting, preparation is critical. I am a firm believer in short, focused, and impactful meetings. In order to facilitate this, I do my homework. I learn about the person I’m meeting with – how did they get where they are, what do they like to write about, and what do they like to do? Checking LinkedIn, Twitter and reviewing their publications is a great place to start.

Next I come up with interesting questions based on their background, challenges they’ve faced, industry trends they might know about, and situations I’m experiencing. Usually I ask for advice on a real scenario I’m going through. I also am sure to prepare a few juicy stories they might be interested in just in case they ask (though that is NOT the goal of the first meeting) so that I don’t flounder on surprise questions.

Meetings with reporters are very different than professional connections. For those, I still research the reporter’s background and interests, but I also typically bring a senior executive for an interview or have a specific story they are interested in to talk about during our meeting.

Don’t forget to follow-up. After a meeting, follow-up can be as simple as a thank you email or sending what I promised (like an article or site I thought they might be interested in).

However, if I learned something specific from someone, I like to share the results or how I applied their idea so they can see it. For example, one mentor recommended my communications team write a thought leadership piece rather than simply pitching our new data, so that we could control the message. As a follow-up, I sent him a link to the published thought leadership piece so he could see his advice in action.

So many people forget to close the loop; doing so will really set you apart.

Outcome – What I’ve Learned

Since accepting Jolie’s challenge in September, I’ve had 32 “lunches” with some VERY interesting people (of course, meeting for coffee or happy hour works just as well). Not only have I learned a lot from their war stories, best practices and industry knowledge, I’ve also gained a lot of confidence, cultivated some amazing relationships, and learned how to ask good questions to find out what people need that I might be able to help with.

It is no surprise that reporters I’ve met with in person are five times more likely to respond to my emails and actually cover Mixpo. (Often nothing immediate comes from a meeting, but then I’ll be pleasantly surprised six months later when I get a call for an interview). Interestingly, I would not be writing this post for Popforms if Kate Stull and I hadn’t met for coffee last fall!

The best gift I’ve received from this challenge is that I now have an “advisory board” of experts I can call or email when I face challenges I’ve never gone through before. This group also shares opportunities such as leads from reporters, award submission details, judging panels, and speaking opportunities we may not have come across on our own.

A couple things to keep in mind: it’s still a good idea to have lunch/coffee with your existing relationships. Stay connected when you don’t need anything and give more than you receive (can you make an introduction for them or share something you’ve learned that would be helpful for them?).

This process can work with any type of profession and can be used to learn and grow in your current role, or to prepare for a future desired role. Who will you invite to lunch this week?

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