How does the word "networking" make you feel? If you cringe at the idea, you're not alone in the business world. It can feel awkward to talk to strangers and develop an "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" relationship. But building networks in business has plenty of advantages once you get past your initial trepidation.
You'll not only have people to turn to for advice or resources, but also feel inspired by their creativity and accomplishments. People in your business network may even refer clients to you. It's a win-win situation. But how do you do it?
Whether you love networking or not, it doesn't get any easier than using these seven tools. But before we dive into the technological facets of network building, we have to emphasize the continued importance of the tried-and-true business card.
1. Using Business Cards the Right Way
As the original networking tool, a business card belongs in even a modern-day arsenal for forging business relationships. This sturdy piece of paper helps people remember who you are and provides them with several ways to get in touch with you. Its design also reinforces your brand image and makes you memorable. But many people continue to make mistakes with their business cards.
For example, have you been tempted to stuff as much information as possible onto every centimeter of that card? Resist the urge to put anything more than the essentials on a business card. This typically means including your name, job title, company name, direct work line and email address. Your picture and/or company logo can round out the design, and some people choose to put more compelling images, tag lines or mission statements on the opposite side if needed.
The key to distributing business cards is to not be shy about giving them out in the first place. Keep a supply on hand to give out to people who may be interested in contacting you, and give several to people who may have a chance to refer someone to you. As you hand someone a business card, reiterate why that person should contact you. For example, you could say, "Email me and let me know how that project turned out," while also asking for their business card in return.
2. Making the Most of LinkedIn
LinkedIn was designed for building networks in business, so it needs to be at the top of your list of social media platforms to log into each day. But you can spend a lot of time on LinkedIn — and even make a lot of connections — without actually building a network. So, what's the secret?
Remember that building networks and partnerships is about making connections with people — real connections. That means you have to do more than just click a few buttons to create a superficial list of followers online. You actually need to interact with people and sincerely get to know them.
Start by reading other people's articles, posts or updates. Make thoughtful comments and give advice when it's asked for. Then, seek out a formal connection. Start sharing your own updates on a regular basis to encourage conversation and to help your connections remember your name and industry.
3. Creating Conversations on Twitter
When business professionals aren't commenting on LinkedIn articles, they're usually hanging out on Twitter. Hashtags make it easy to find posts relevant to your industry that you can reply to or share without comment. Although it's tempting to follow just the big-name gurus, spend time getting to know your peers as well.
Follow professional associations and leading businesses to look for opportunities to participate in mini Twitter conferences relevant to your industry. Typically hosted in a Q&A format, the organizer asks a question and invites people to answer. The organizer then shares interesting answers. You can gain followers and a reputation for thought-leadership if you participate in these on a regular basis.
Use this platform to stimulate conversation by asking your own questions and sharing your own trials and tribulations. Twitter is less formal than LinkedIn and you can show your human side, which could actually help you form stronger relationships with your network.
4. Joining Groups on Facebook
If you like the more personal aspect of Twitter but tend to be long-winded, you'll find a happy medium on Facebook groups. Finding a group of industry professionals may be a little tricky at first, because many are set to "secret" or "private" for confidentiality. This means you can't find them using the search bar and have to be invited instead.
To get an invitation, either join a public (anyone can join) or closed (you can request to join) group in your industry. Interact there and you may get an invitation to a more popular and active private group. Or, you can ask connections you've made on LinkedIn or Twitter about any Facebook groups they recommend joining.
From there, you can engage in in-depth discussions on threads about a variety of topics. Each group has its own rules of engagement, but the discussions can still get animated and controversial. As you get to know people better, you can add meaningful connections as friends, or direct them to your LinkedIn profile if you prefer to keep Facebook as a family-only space.
5. Building Networks With the Let's Lunch App
Social connections can be useful, but knowing local business people in real life will help you secure more tangible opportunities. The Let's Lunch app combines technology with in-person networking to make it easier than ever to meet up with local people, whether in your industry or not.
The app's tagline implies that you can use these meet-ups to learn about job opportunities, but you shouldn't necessarily put the cart before the horse. Meet someone for lunch or coffee and just chat about business. Share your struggles and triumphs and learn about theirs.
In the process, you might learn a new strategy or perspective that clicks everything into place. At the very least, you've made a new connection. Don't forget to share your business card.
6. Leveraging Your Email Signature
Your email signature also plays an important role in encouraging people to reach out to you professionally. It gives you the opportunity to share your social links with anyone who emails you, which can help you quickly grow a dedicated following. You can even share your Let's Lunch handle to help people connect with you in person.
Think of your email signature as your digital business card. Don't clutter it with too much information. Use images and icons in a smart way to keep the signature concise. If it takes up half a page, it's more annoying than anything else.
7. Scheduling With When2Meet
If your networking efforts are really taking off and you're getting more comfortable making in-person connections, schedule wisely with When2Meet. This program helps you both reconcile your schedules in order to find a time to meet up and talk business. It's also handy for scheduling phone calls, which can help you establish business relationships with people around the region, country or world.
Building a professional network takes time and effort, but these seven tools can help you do it effectively.
Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.