- Professional networking means deliberately creating and maintaining relationships with others who can help you further your career or personal brand.
- Many networking tools, including apps and websites, can help you build successful relationships.
- Networking best practices include being prepared, being honest and following up.
- This article is for professionals, job seekers, and entrepreneurs who want to grow their networks and relationships to maximize their brands and careers.
If you ask anyone how they got where they are today, you’ll quickly learn that many successful business professionals have connections. These connections, however, were likely not handed to them. Instead, they were forged through successful professional networking.
You can only get so far by yourself; the reality is that professional progression and opportunities are driven by the relationships you build. “Business revolves around people, and it is driven by relationships, which affect every aspect of business, from sales to recruitment,” said Yiannis Gavrielides, CEO of Covve. “It is therefore important for us all to build and maintain real professional relationships.”
Strategies to expand your professional network
Professional networking requires initiative. You have to make an effort to meet people and then establish and maintain those relationships. “Networking is a deliberate activity to build, reinforce and maintain relationships of trust with other people to further your goals,” wrote Anders Ostlund, founder of networking site Fryday, on Medium.
Today, as social media changes business tactics, you can network by sending an invitation on LinkedIn or following a contact on Twitter. But with increased accessibility, it’s more essential than ever to build your personal brand and network like a pro.
Here are four ways to grow your professional network:
Use your LinkedIn profile to grow your professional network.
Social media sites, particularly LinkedIn, have changed the professional networking landscape. Many people rely on their LinkedIn network for referrals, introductions, reviews and references – all of which come in handy when you are looking for a job or hiring new team members, said Michael Brown, a career consultant and author of Fresh Passion: Get a Brand or Die a Generic.
You can use LinkedIn for business in several important ways:
- Add to your professional contacts. Brown recommends adding anyone you deal with professionally to your LinkedIn network. Even if your contact with these people was brief, they might become valuable allies in the future.
- Learn about people in your industry. LinkedIn is a great space to learn about people’s professional and educational backgrounds. If you have a meeting with someone coming up, read their profile to find similarities and conversation topics, advised Tyler Whitman, a licensed real estate agent at Triplemint. Whether it’s for a job interview, sales call or alumni networking event, having talking points shows that you’ve made an effort to learn about the person and increases your likelihood of making a good first impression.
- Recruit team members. A LinkedIn page can help your company find and recruit top talent so you can improve your hiring process and find team members who align with your mission and values.
- Promote your business. LinkedIn’s marketing features make it an excellent business promotion tool, enabling you to grow your relationships with consumers.
Did you know?: LinkedIn isn’t the only website that specializes in networking. These LinkedIn alternatives can also help you find the right position.
Ask for introductions to meet new professional contacts.
Don’t be afraid to ask someone in your professional network to introduce you to someone they know, Brown advised. Most people are happy to facilitate connections or even become mentors who help you enrich your professional relationships.
You can also ask for help from a networking “wingman.” It can be awkward to brag about yourself to a stranger, Whitman said, but a friend can talk up your successes and achievements – and you can do the same for them.
Keep in touch to nurture professional relationships.
Networking is not a one-and-done deal where you meet a contact and then speak with them only when you need something. If you really want to connect, nurture a sustainable, give-and-take relationship.
“After meeting someone, assuming there is rapport, I make sure I stay in touch,” Gavrielides said. “Staying in touch with people requires effort, and it is important to regularly reengage … I feel that conversations must be natural, but the effort to reengage must be conscious, as we are all too busy to do it effortlessly.”
Ostlund noted that while social media sites are an excellent way to begin relationships, authentic professional relationships require in-person meetings to build depth. Trust is hard to develop without the personal interaction involved in face-to-face conversation.
FYI: If you are an entrepreneur, building and maintaining good business relationships is also crucial for sustaining your customer base, gaining referrals, and working with quality vendors.
Never stop looking for opportunities (but do it right).
Focus on growth and think about the people you encounter daily, Brown said. Grab a business card or search for them on LinkedIn if there is any chance you can call on them professionally in the future.
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t network selfishly, Whitman advised. Create a foundation first; learn about the other person and tell them about you. Once there’s a foundation, it’s OK to ask for something, but don’t jump the gun and ask for favors outright.
“Networking should be authentic and should be part of both our business and professional lives,” Gavrielides said. “We are naturally social beings and should ensure we socialize rather than engage in forced exchange. The relationships I built along the way are now customers, suppliers, partners, colleagues, investors … [and] many are close friends.”
Professional networking tools
A comprehensive networking plan is essential, and software apps can help with that. We’ve already discussed LinkedIn, but you should consider adding a few other tools to your professional networking arsenal.
- Discord: Launched in 2015, Discord is a small business chat tool initially designed to help gamers talk globally. The app has exceeded its original purpose and is used by all types of businesses, influencers and brands. Discord offers users a dedicated server for instant messaging, audio chats and video chats without any extra costs. The app is an excellent resource for reaching out to your community and engaging with your audience.
- Bumble Bizz: Bumble Bizz is a spinoff of the dating app Bumble. It was established in 2017 as a way to create professional networking opportunities. Bumble Bizz uses the same location-based data as the dating app to encourage local business relationships. It’s an excellent tool for making business matches at your pace on a more personal level.
- WhatsApp: What started as an alternative to SMS in 2009 is now a free, end-to-end-encrypted messaging, calling and video chat app used by more than 2 billion people in over 180 countries. WhatsApp’s accessibility makes it a crucial tool for networking and keeping in touch with people worldwide. Brands like Adidas and Absolut Vodka use the app to market to their audiences, while other companies use WhatsApp for customer service.
- Twitch: Launched in 2011, Twitch focuses on video game livestreaming, esports competitions and various streaming options. The Amazon subsidiary has experienced massive growth and is praised for its community-building quality. Its streaming reach has made it an attractive platform for companies and provides a unique tool for small businesses, which are 74% of the companies using Twitch.
- TikTok: Popular social media app TikTok is a platform for short-form videos used for various purposes, from entertainment to education. Like Twitch, TikTok business features promote community interaction, including the ability to make video responses to comments that can be used to answer questions. Also, the app allows people to make videos that build off others, called duets. Businesses are starting to gravitate to the app, and it’s only the beginning of its business potential.
- Meetup: The Meetup website gives people the opportunity to, well, meet up. As the name indicates, the site lets users create social or business groups, including networking events. To adapt to the pandemic, Meetup added streaming capabilities. It can be a great tool for expanding your business.
Professional networking dos and don’ts
With both online and in-person networking, remember that it takes effort to succeed and grasp potential opportunities.
- Be prepared for meetings. Being ready means dressing for the action, making eye contact and using a firm handshake. Another element of being ready is ensuring people can keep in contact. For in-person meetings, have business cards ready with all your necessary contact information. For online networking events, have a LinkedIn profile, website and portfolio ready to share.
- Have honest conversations. It’s easy to tell when people are putting up a front or being disingenuous, so authenticity is essential. People appreciate honesty and openness, so approach everyone as if you want to be friends. When talking to people, be clear and concise so you aren’t dominating the conversation.
- Follow up. It’s crucial to follow up with any connections you make at a networking event. Sending thank-you notes is one way to do this. Additionally, if someone gives you advice on getting ahead and finding opportunities, be sure to look into their recommendations.
- Put people on pedestals. Everyone at a networking event is a person and deserves the same amount of respect. Try not to be intimidated by someone in a position of power or fame. Also, don’t try to flatter the person you’re talking to or show you’re a “superfan.” Most people want to have a genuine conversation.
- Forget to listen. Being present in the conversation is a recipe for success, and understanding that the networking event isn’t just for you is a bonus. You’ll be tempted to say your piece or jump into a conversation, but you want encounters to have a natural flow. Whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or a group meeting, listen to whoever is speaking and take in what they’re saying. The speaker can usually tell if people are actively listening, and they appreciate it when someone values their time and knowledge.
- Get discouraged by rejection (or fear of it). Don’t let the idea of rejection scare you off the path. Even if you go to just one networking event, you’ll interact with many people, and not everyone will be a fit for your professional network. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to connect. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Be kind and courteous. Ask questions. The more you put yourself out there, the more chances you’ll have to find strong connections.
Tip: To find networking events, check out resources like Eventbrite and Eventful, and look for Facebook groups that focus on your area of interest.
How can networking help your career?
Online and in-person networking are essential as you navigate your career path. However, networking’s benefits go beyond employee referrals and new job opportunities. Professional development expands your skills and knowledge base. By interacting with others in your field, you learn what people outside your company or niche are doing, giving you a fresh perspective.
You’ll also have ready access to experts who can help you figure out the answers to your toughest challenges. In fact, asking for help is one of the best ways to keep that connection strong.
Don’t overlook industry events as excellent opportunities for professional networking. Do your homework in advance so you know whom you want to meet. Then, with your talking points in hand, introduce yourself. You are on your way to an expanded professional network.
Professional networking is a skill
Professional networking is a skill you can develop and improve. The art of networking is dynamic, so staying abreast of new and effective methods and platforms is essential. Even if you aren’t looking for a new job, networking is crucial for building relationships that can help your current position and enrich your professional life.
Sammi Caramela and Jennifer Post contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.