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5 Tips For Expanding Your Professional Network

Friday, June 01, 2012
Read this article in PDF form here.

By Kim O’Connor

Your network—the people you know—is one of your most vital business assets. Collectively, these folks are like a superhuman assistant that can help you earn money, meet people, brainstorm ideas and troubleshoot problems.

Such connections are invaluable. But first you have to make them.

Many people conceive of a network as a collection of business cards stuffed in a Rolodex. But a robust network is never static. It’s a living, breathing entity that requires your ongoing care and attention.

Whether you’re starting a new business or want to extend the reach of an existing one, here are some ideas about how you can build—and nurture—a strong, healthy network of helping hands.


1. Don'’t spread yourself too thin

Networking takes time. Concentrate your efforts on one resource at a time to maximize your results.

An overwhelming variety of networking opportunities are available to today’s professionals. They generally fall into two main categories:

  • Face-to-face interactions (such as local meetings, mixers and seminars, regional events and national conferences)
  • Online networking platforms (such as LinkedIn, which now has more than 150 million members and 2 million company pages)

Your best bet is to devote most of your attention to one networking category or the other.

Play to your strengths, both professionally and personally. Face-to-face events make sense for businesses that offer local products and services. Online networking works well for businesses with national reach.

Your personality type is another consideration. Wallflowers might find mixers unpleasant, whereas social butterflies might feel frustrated getting to know people from their desk chairs.

If you decide to pursue face-to-face networking opportunities, don’t completely ignore the online networking world, cautions Gene Fairbrother, the lead consultant for the NASE’s Business 101 program. He recommends maintaining at least a bare-bones Web page for your business on sites like LinkedIn and Facebook.

“It’s important for a business to have a presence,” he says.

Even a brief bio will give your business an air of legitimacy.


2. Choose quality over quantity

Networking is not a numbers game. You are not in a contest to see who can collect the most contacts or hand out the most business cards.

Your goal is to build meaningful relationships, which is a process—not a one-time episode.

At its heart, networking is a social activity like any other. When you meet new people, aim for a tone that’s friendly and curious, as though you’re talking to a friend of a friend.

Don’t do anything that might seem out of place in other social settings. (At a dinner party, would you press a business card into someone’s hand without making small talk first? Probably not.)

Act natural and avoid self-promotion.

First impressions are important, but the key to successful networking is in the follow-up.

Fairbrother recommends establishing a simple ritual to touch base with new contacts, such as sending a quick email to say hello.

“You need to have a program to follow up with them,” he explains. “You have to nurture your contacts.”

Small gestures can lead to big business down the road.


3. Keep an open mind

As you network, cast a wide net. Try to speak with a broad range of professionals and personalities.

Some of your contacts will be potential clients and customers—a direct source of business. Others will send you referrals.

But plenty of the folks you meet probably won’t impact your bottom line, and that’s perfectly OK.

Embrace that diversity. Variety will help make your network a rich resource that can fulfill a variety of needs.

In addition to customers, your network might include:

  • Mentors (long-term teachers)
  • Coaches (short-term counselors)
  • Professional guides (such as lawyers and accountants)
  • Peers and colleagues
  • Suppliers
  • Valued friends

 

4. Don’'t get stuck in a rut

If you nurture and expand your professional network, chances are it will boost your business. If, however, you don’t see a return on your investment over time, you might need to try a new approach.

Fairbrother recommends a three- to six-month trial period for any given networking activity.

“If you’re not getting business out of it, don’t waste your time on that group or that networking element any more,” he says. “Go find another one.”

For example, if you find that a membership with your local Chamber of Commerce isn’t a good fit, you might join a volunteer organization like the Lions Club.

Also, think about ways to leverage your personal experience to connect with other professionals, such as registering with the alumni association at your alma mater.

Keep in mind that even great networking opportunities can hit a saturation point. When you reach a stage where you know everyone in the room, it’s probably time to move on  to the next frontier.


5. Understand the difference between networking and marketing


There is an important distinction between talking with people and talking to people.

As you network, it’s crucial to engage in real conversations. No one wants to hear you deliver a monologue about your business. Try to frame the way you talk about your work as a human-interest story—not as a commercial.

Another thing to remember is that networking is a two-way street. It’s selfish to focus only on what you want to receive; you must also think about what you can give.

Strong relationships are mutually beneficial. What, exactly, do you have to offer the people in your network?

Finally, keep in mind that networking can’t replace all of your marketing efforts. While advertising, promotions and other forms of marketing have no place in networking activities, they remain useful business tools in other contexts.


Kim O’Connor is a freelance writer who frequently writes about social media and best business practices.



Learn More

Get more information about networking with these online NASE articles. They’re exclusively for NASE Members. And they’re free!

 


Get A Grant To Help Your Business Grow

Do you need money to fund a marketing campaign? Launch a website? Hire an employee to help with your social media?

Then apply for an NASE Growth Grant®. Since 2006, the NASE has awarded more than half a million dollars to members just like you through the Growth Grants® program. 

These grants—up to $5,000—can be used to meet specific business needs. 

To be eligible for an NASE grant, you must:

  • Be an NASE Member in good standing
  • Demonstrate a business need that could be fulfilled by the grant
  • Provide a detailed explanation of how you will use the grant proceeds
  • Show how the grant will improve your business growth and success
  • Offer supporting documentation such as a résumé and business plan

NASE Growth Grants® are awarded at the sole discretion of the NASE. Unfortunately, not everyone who applies will receive a grant. Decisions of the selection committee are final and are not subject to appeal. No application feedback will be given.

 

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