7 Ways to Build a Strong Professional Network

Without contacts, there’s no one to call. Without anyone to call, there’s limited room for growth. Therefore, networking is your means to building your own personal phone book and unlocking the doors to success. Effective networking can seem daunting at first, but the reality is that it can actually be fun. You just need to figure out what works best for you and design a game plan that emphasizes your strengths.

Before diving in on uncovering your networking strategy, remember the old cliché: you only get one chance to make a great first impression. Start with your appearance. For example, if you’re in for a long flight, maybe leave the sweats at home. Your airplane is full of networking prospects. To intrigue a successful person, you don’t need to be theatrical. You simply need to capture their attention.

A networking opportunity can come from anywhere, so you don’t need to—and shouldn’t—stress or overthink the technique of discussion. Be in the moment and be yourself. Every networking angle we’re about to discuss works best when you connect with someone on a personal level. Once that’s established, all of the other networking doors will begin to unlock.

Utilize Your Current Network

Your current network consists of family, friends, past co-workers, etc. These are your core people–the ones most willing to help you. The easiest way to expand your network is to build one off of them. Set up business lunches or drinks, and find out what they are currently working on. Ask if they have any upcoming networking events and then tag along. If you approach your current network in a way where you are offering your help or services, they may even see teaming up on the networking game to be mutually beneficial.

Social Networking

This might seem obvious, but don’t discount online forums and social networking websites, which offer networking opportunities with the simple click of a button. Sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter all feature numerous networking groups for every industry imaginable. You could even check out Startup Grind, which is “a global startup community designed to educate, inspire, and connect entrepreneurs.” The beauty of modern-day technology is that your networking doesn’t have to start in person. You can make a wealth of connections online, and then take them to the real world. Also, while social networking, position yourself as a leader by joining online discussions and posting articles that are pertinent to those discussions.

Volunteer at a Nonprofit

It’s as simple as it is altruistic: help out a nonprofit organization. Send an email or make a call. Not only is volunteering personally rewarding, but it’s a great way to network with people across all walks of life. You’ll also be in the company of good people who like to help others. Before joining just any nonprofit, you’ll want to take into account which one will most benefit your needs for what you strive to do. To find your ideal nonprofit, check out VolunteerMatch. They have almost 99,000 participating organizations and have found matches for almost 9 million volunteers.

Secure a Second Date

During networking events, a whole lot of people meet a whole lot more people. So, though you may have made an impact on a handful of attendees, it is understandable that they might not remember who you were. This is where a second date comes into play.

You can attempt to secure a second meeting on the spot. However, if you have done your job and found that connection, perhaps you’ll end up with their business card. If so, a more courteous approach might be to email them or their assistant a day or so later to set up a “coffee meeting or whatever is most convenient.” Note the quote: you want to be as minimally invasive as possible when requesting their time. Additionally, it’s a good idea to carry your own business cards. Be prepared, and check out the 5 best websites for business cards.

Collaborate With Others

As networking is a game of “What can I do for you and what can you do for me?”, slightly “mismatched” networking can be a nice added value for your efforts. Connecting and collaborating with people in fields that work alongside yours can highlight a mutual need for each other’s services. If you are a product supplier, you may want to network with distributors. Just be prepared to make yourself unique.

For example, have a back pocket plan in place detailing what you can offer them vs. what others can’t. When strategizing what you need from networking, explore groups that might find your collaboration beneficial, and vice versa.

Create Your Own Networking Group

An optimal way to position yourself as a leader and grow your database is to start your own networking group. Beyond the obvious advantages of doing this, it can also be a great addition to your resume. Fortunately, starting a networking group comes without all the annoying bells and whistles of starting a business. But, like anything worth doing right, it will still take some work.

Start by partnering with a few colleagues and connect with a few venues to help smooth out the operation. When inviting people to join the group, don’t get caught up in the old “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality. You are offering an opportunity to people. Samantha Ettus, a work/life management expert, suggests, “Picking people is the most important part of a networking group.”

Network Before You Network

This is an essential but often overlooked networking tactic that can prepare you better than anyone. Once you’re all signed up for a networking event or get-together, check the event’s attendee page, website, or social media page to see who will be attending. At this point, you can do one of two things or both. One choice is to reach out to people in advance and let them know you’re looking forward to meeting them. The other, if you prefer a less direct route, is to simply use the list as a research tool to learn the businesses of the people you will be meeting. Learning about your fellow attendees—and their jobs—will help you look sharp and knowledgeable when it comes down to game time.

As you head into your next exciting networking opportunity, always remember this: The more you make the meeting about others, the more likely others are to welcome you into their network.

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