Professional networking is hard. Really hard.
You carry business cards, send out LinkedIn invites, and go to boring networking events where you shake hands and immediately forget the people you meet.
The entire process is awkward and feels like it gets you nowhere.
But if you follow a few simple steps, you can use your networking skills to get new clients, business deals, potential partnerships, referrals, job opportunities, and a whole lot more. You can become a networking master.
And with this guide, you’ll learn exactly how to do that.
How to fix the #1 networking problem
The problem is that most people focus on collecting business cards and LinkedIn connections. They forget the real goal: building actual, profitable relationships.
Networking isn’t about figuring out who can get you a job. It’s not about glad-handing strangers until one of them buys your product or service. And it’s not about maximizing the benefits for yourself.
It’s about connecting with people.
Relationships have benefits for both parties. Networking isn’t about getting. It’s about giving. If things go well, and you establish a long-term relationship, then you might get something in return.
Always be thinking about what you can give. Not what you can get.
Focusing on yourself is the #1 problem with networking. And with a giving mentality, you can fix it.
Once you’ve done that, move onto the next steps:
1. Ensure success with preparation
Networking events are great. But if you’re going to network like a boss you’ve got to approach every single interaction as a networking opportunity.
You don’t have to wear a suit and tie everywhere you go. But you should at least invest some time and effort.
Here’s how to make sure you’re ready to network at a moment’s notice:
- Have an awesome elevator pitch. Check out the three parts of an insanely effective elevator pitch. Then use a tool like Buzzuka (pictured below) to craft yours using proven psychological principles.
- Practice your pitch. Give your pitch to your friends and colleagues to get comfortable with it. If you sound like a robot, try again.
- Carry (nice) business cards. Hire a designer and have your cards printed by Vistaprint or MOO. It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard: people do judge books by their covers. So you want something classy and sharp.
- Do your research. Presidents and other important people send advance teams ahead of them before going anywhere. Why? To be prepared. If you’re going somewhere you’re likely to run into a potential connection, brush up on your notes, anticipate questions, and make sure you can pronounce everyone’s name correctly.
Also, be a decent human being.
Treat every single person you encounter as a potential client. Be polite, courteous, and professional. Hold the door for people. Offer to carry their groceries. Just be nice.
We live in an age focused on work. And that means everyone’s first question after meeting you is, “What do you do?”
Here’s how it works:
You: “Oh, let me hold the door for you.”
Them: “Wow. Thank you so much.”
[Exchange of pleasantries]
Them: “So what do you do?”
You: “I’m in digital marketing.”
Them: “No way—I’m actually looking for a new agency!”
2. Expand your circles with networking groups
Not every networking event is a roaring success. But not all networking groups are a waste of time. So check out the groups that are available in your area. Here are a few ideas:
- Your local Chamber of Commerce
- Business Network International groups
- Professional and trade organizations
- Alumni associations
If you’re not sure which groups are right for you, Danny Rubin has a helpful post on how to find a networking group that’s worth your time.
The same rule also applies to online networking. Join LinkedIn groups and introduce yourself in relevant forums. There are even Facebook groups for local businesses, industries, and interests that may be worth checking out.
More on that in a moment.
3. Build a reputation by publishing and speaking
This one’s not going to go over well with the introvert crowd, but damn it, it’s important!
Publishing your work and landing speaking engagements doesn’t just boost your credibility. It’s also an awesome way to connect with potential clients, employers, hires, and other people you can help out.
Before submitting that manuscript to Random House, though, remember that publishing your work doesn’t necessarily mean signing with an agent and pursuing a multi-million dollar advance.
Most of us aren’t going on a book tour anytime soon. So publish wherever and whenever you can—provided the publication or website is legit and the audience is relevant to your business.
Take a deep breath and put yourself out there:
- Publish a blog post (if you don’t already have your own blog, go do that)
- Contribute a guest post to another blog
- Submit guest columns to newspapers, magazines, and trade journals
- Offer to speak to business groups and conferences
- Host a workshop in the community
And remember: talk with people, not at them
Publishing and speaking should be more about listening than anything else. If you’re going to leverage your expertise for networking, the goal is to generate buzz, establish authority, and above all, start a conversation.
That means replying to comments on your blog posts, inviting readers to contact you directly, and hanging out with the audience following your speaking engagements. Remember to bring your fancy business cards.
And if you need tips on how to start and continue useful conversations, check out David Masters’ great tutorial on the topic.
4. Stand out by offering something valuable
Networking would be a lot more fun if you got paid to do it, right?
In a way, you are:
You should think of networking as an investment. There’s no guaranteed ROI, but you can increase your odds of landing a new client or job if you offer something valuable upfront.
Here’s the deal.
People don’t want a pen or a keychain.
They want you to prove two things:
- You actually give a shit about their business
- You know your stuff
Whether you’re face-to-face at a networking event or connecting with someone online, share your knowledge. No hourly fee, no expectations. Take the time to actually listen and share your expertise.
Note: This is about differentiating yourself and building goodwill. It is not the time for the hard sell.
5. Widen your reach with social media
Contrary to what you may believe, social media actually can be used professionally. You can (and should) use social media to build relationships with important prospects, potential clients, employers, work associates, and more.
Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Quora are a goldmine of professional networking opportunities. Others, like LinkedIn, were built specifically for this purpose.
(Check out this boatload of best practices for networking on LinkedIn.)
Make more professional connections on these social networks
- LinkedIn. The gold standard in online business networking. Connect with potential employers, clients, technical co-founders, thought leaders, and work associates. Build authority in your industry by sharing business insights and blog posts. Use recommendations and endorsements to nurture relationships with your contacts. LinkedIn Groups are also a great way to network with professionals in your industry. But watch out: these groups can quickly collapse into unashamed self-promotion.
- Facebook. Your favorite platform for sharing cat photos and fake news, Facebook is also a powerful professional networking tool. Facebook Groups are ripe with opportunity. But as with LinkedIn Groups, not all Facebook Groups are created equal. Before you commit to joining a professional Facebook Group, look for the three things recommended by Andrea Vahl at Social Media Examiner: if a group has active members, a good description, and low spam, it’s a winner.
- Twitter. More public than Facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter is the perfect place for sharing your unique perspective and establishing yourself as a thought leader. Engaging with potential clients or influencers in your industry is a great way to build relationships.
- AngelList. AngelList is the perfect place to connect with startup founders, freelancers, investors, and talented folks looking for work. The same basic etiquette of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn applies to AngelList. Thank folks for following, ask how you can help, and don’t be creepy.
- Quora. The internet’s go-to for Q&A on basically everything is an excellent tool for professional networking. Establish credibility with a thoughtful bio, follow topics relevant to your industry, and jump in with helpful insights and expertise where you can. As an added bonus, top answers on Quora can drive a ton of traffic to your website. Social Media Examiner has a great guide to using Quora for networking, so be sure to check that out before you get started.
Use caution on social media
The blurred line between personal and professional communication can make networking on social media especially challenging. So before you reach out to potential employers or clients, remember that you’re inviting them to peruse your entire social history.
If you’ve posted one too many margarita-fueled selfies, you might want to consider checking your privacy settings (or, you know, maybe not posting margarita-fueled selfies).
Worried about what your ill-advised tweets say to potential employers or clients?
There are plenty of professional networking horror stories about social media. Use these recommended approaches for keeping it classy.
6. Connect with people in other industries
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the importance of connecting with people in your industry. But if you’re not also networking with folks outside your industry, you’re missing out on valuable opportunities.
Networking outside your industry can be helpful for many reasons:
- You never know when you’ll need a connection in another industry
- There are often opportunities to help other people
- They may know people you want to know
It’s easy to focus on people in your industry, and even easier to focus on people who you think have something valuable to offer to you. But networking is about a lot more than that.
Hunter Walk has an interesting post on how focusing on weak ties and connecting with folks outside your industry can up your networking game. So go check that out, and start thinking about where you can network outside of your usual circles.
7. Get recommendations from people you know
So far we’ve focused on expanding your circle outward . . . but that doesn’t mean you should neglect potential opportunities closer to home.
Sometimes the most valuable networking opportunities are within a few degrees of your own friends and family. Reach out to these folks. Chances are they’ll know someone you should talk to.
How do you go about this? You could put out a few blasts on Facebook and LinkedIn, but a more personal approach will likely net you better results.
Bring it up in conversation and mention why it’s important to you. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it, but it’s much easier to ignore a post on Facebook than it is a request for a personal favor.
8. Find success with the long game
When it comes to professional networking, it’s not about today; it’s about tomorrow. And the next day.
And the day after that, and a year from now, and five years down the road. Networking is a long game, and not every contact you make will pay off instantly (or ever).
Effective networking means nurturing relationships over time, and only asking for favors or help when those relationships are strong enough.
Find a mentor
Mentorship, in particular, is a great way to build long-term relationships. As you expand your professional network, keep an eye out for folks who have a lot of valuable knowledge. Then do your best to learn from them.
You might benefit from changing your ideas about mentorship, too. Corbett Barr has a great post about reconceptualizing mentorship and why people don’t have mentors like you might think they do. He also offers an alternative suggestion: start a mastermind group.
These groups are small and meet regularly to increase accountability, share knowledge, and develop personal connections in a difficult business world. It might feel awkward at first, but it’s a great way to advance your career.
9. Forge the connection by following up
10% of networking is showing up. 90% is following up.
Collecting connections on LinkedIn or filling your pockets with business cards counts for jack squat.
In order to capitalize, you have to actually reach out and build the relationship. Check out this definitive guide to mastering the art of the follow-up, and above all remember this:
Do not wait more than 24 hours to follow up with a new contact. Timing is crucial.
Email is usually the best route for follow-up. Not sure how to craft the perfect follow-up email? Here are some great resources:
- How to Follow Up After Networking Events—Apryl Beverly’s guide helps you find the right words to include in your email and includes a few examples templates to get you started.
- Networking! The Art of the Follow-Up—The University of Virginia’s awesome guide gives you suggestions for follow-ups to many different networking interactions.
- How to Follow Up after a Networking Event—Want to hear what the experts have to say about following up? This post gathers their advice and sums it up for you.
Don’t be afraid of professional networking
Professional networking can suck. And it can be scary.
But if you’re not expanding and leveraging your network to grow your business, you’re losing out.
Whether you’re naturally outgoing or an introvert who would rather network from the safety of your own laptop, use the above strategies to network like a boss.
And let us know your own best networking tips!
How do you network? What are the best strategies you’ve tried for in-person or online networking? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below!