THE BLOG
04/29/2014 11:33 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2014

Meetup.com: A Secret Weapon for Your Career and Personal Brand

Meetup.com is one of the lesser discussed social networking sites, but I'd argue it's one of the most valuable in terms of bringing people together in the real world around a common theme or interest -- going beyond Facebook and Twitter to facilitate real-life interaction where so much of our communication is digital.

Meetup has been around for quite a few years, and people know of it as an excellent way to meet new people with similar interests. However, I am surprised at the number of business people who are not realizing its potential to grow and build one's own brand and career.

If you believe the old adage that goes "it's not what you know but who you know" then you will appreciate the importance of meeting influential people in your industry, niche or topic of interest. Meetup is a great way to plug into (or even assemble) a like-minded group of people who share your interests, thus opening up opportunities for collaboration, learning and growth.

Here are some ways to best take advantage of this great social tool for use in your professional life.

Brandbuilding

For those willing to put in the time, consider starting a group to tailor to your specific expertise. Or simply join one in your area. In larger cities, there is probably one already established. If that's the case, contact the meetup organizer and offer to give a presentation. Being the featured speaker is a great way to give yourself instant credibility.

Andrew Shell started a local PHP group in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin a few years back, not knowing that it would become pivotal to his career. Shell says that it even made him a better businessman and programmer. "I became comfortable speaking in front of a group, and it really helped me improve my communication skills in general. I was typically very shy in social situations, but being the group organizer and in most cases speaker, it was important for me to greet people coming to the event and lead the conversations that occurred. Putting together a presentation every month on a different topic required me to step through the entire topic and learn about it inside and out. When you organize a topic to present, you try to be thorough and in doing so you discover all the weird edge cases that you hadn't thought about before."

Yvette Ulloa runs a personal growth meetup in Los Angeles based upon the teachings of Tony Robbins. She comments that it has helped her both professionally and personally to be surrounded by like-minded, driven people. "You live up to the expectations of your peer group", she asserts. By creating your own high-performing peer group through Meetup.com, you are creating a local support system for your own success.

One tip is to be the go-to person on a particular topic. Is there an aspect to your meetup's topic that you are great at or know a lot about? Be there to answer questions about it, and people will see you as a valuable resource.

Meetups can also serve as a test market for your products or services, according to marketing consultant Dr. Marion Mehrer. "Say there it is a personal meetup group of young dads, and you are selling a baby carrier. A lot of the time you can contact the organizer, and he or she will let you contact the members of the group. You can say 'Hey, I got this new carrier, and I would love some dads to test it out. I'm wondering if there is anyone in the group who would be interested". But first, do your research. If you are interested in reaching out to a specific group, maybe go to a meeting. But don't go in trying to sell. "It's about making sure you've found the right fit, and tracking the right type of customer".

Networking

The more you give to the meetup, the more you'll get out of it, in terms of the relationships and opportunities. Shell found a job when one of the members of his group learned he had been laid off. The group member was so impressed with his presentations, "I remember being shocked at my non-interview. My interview consisted of going out for lunch at Olive Garden and then getting a job offer. I don't even think he asked for my resume. He didn't need to because my real interview was all of the meetups that he had attended. He knew that I had the skills he needed because I had demonstrated it month after month". Add value to the meetup members consistently over time, and it will pay dividends.

Ulloa speaks of the fulfillment as well as networking opportunities that running her meetup group has given her. Ulloa, who runs the group along with her husband, describes how at one meetup, an attendee was so impressed with their presentation that he invited them onto his local radio show. Ulloa says the group has brought business deals her way, as well as collaborations with other group members. She attributes her networking success within the group to a neverending focus on adding value to her members.

Perhaps don't go full tilt right away. Dr. Mehrer suggests dipping your toe in the water before investing too much in any one meetup group. "Make sure the group is right for you, and the first day, be very thoughtful. Nobody likes the person who doesn't allow others to get a word in. Maybe for the first meeting, be the listener. If you don't feel good about a person, don't feel compelled to take or keep their card. Maybe only take five cards in the first day. A lot of it is just being a decent person, and people will want to work with you. Ask if you can help with setup; be polite".

Starting your own group has little-known perks. If there is a company looking for a hire with a certain skill set, they will always contact the meetup organizer first. That way, you get the first shot and can jump on an opportunity if it is of interest. As well, with being the organizer, there is automatically the expectation of a certain expertise; if you have the skills to back it up, it gives you an large, instant credibility boost.

What Not to Do With Meetup

Even though there are plenty of ways to take great advantage of the networking capabilities of Meetup, there are definitive ways not to approach it. Ulloa cautions to make sure you are not taking advantage of the situation or the people. "Don't be that snake-oil salesperson that everyone hates. Make sure you are bringing value to every situation." If you go into a meetup group with the sole intention of landing a job and furthering your career, you will be missing out on opportunities for friendships, for life experiences, and for gaining knowledge. Shell said about his group, "I started my group because I saw that there was a real need for the group and I wanted to foster a community. One guy had tried to start a PHP group before I did but it failed. I talked to him before I started my group and he said that he was looking to create a community of experts and when all he got were beginners he decided it wasn't worth his time and he shut it down."

Dr. Mehrer concurs that a meetup is not the place to shamelessly sell. "If you go in there solely trying to sell your company or your product, nobody is going to want to work with you. You have to offer them something. You have to go in there and say, 'this is what I can offer to you'".

Realize that starting a group or joining a group and proving your expertise will be a time investment. However, there are ways to making the process a bit easier. Here are a few tips:

Tips for Cultivating your Meetup

1. Realize that you are guiding and helping those who are hungry for knowledge and growth, and feed off of that. Knowing that you are helping others is always a great motivator.

2. Expand the reach of your group by finding new spots to post a notice. Sometimes the group is not reaching its full potential just because enough people don't know about it. Shell found that for his PHP meetup, he could post events on PHP.net, a very popular site where most of the documentation for the language is. He has since then gotten about half of his members from there. Dr. Mehrer suggested cross-pollinating between the meetup and a related regional LinkedIn group.

3. Don't be afraid to start a spin-off group if there is enough interest.

4. Make interesting events; don't be afraid to invite great speakers. A lot of times, they will only say no due to time conflicts. If you have enough members, consider creating a large yearly event like a conference. This way, you get the word out about your group, while creating your own conference continues to promote your authority on the topic.