Networking is no longer just a matter of attending a monthly meet-and-greet and making a couple of new contacts. It's now a continual effort that can include coffees in the morning, get-acquainted lunches, drinks after work and dozens of tweets, Facebook posts, blog entries, online chats and LinkedIn communications in between. But even with the expanding importance of social networking, human contact is still critical.
"Just because you're networking online doesn't mean you shouldn't be networking in person," says Peter Shankman, founder of Help a Reporter Out, an online resource connecting reporters with stories and sources. "Everything you do should be networking. The person sitting next to you on the plane may have your next job."
Here are some strategies for making sure you plug into every potential opportunity.
See and be seen. Ask others in your industry which events they attend, search industry publications for event listings, and get on the web. Social media sites list thousands of industry-specific networking events. Green Drinks, for example, hosts informal gatherings for "green industry" professionals. Once you find some face-to-face networking opportunities, figure out what your target market is doing online and follow suit.
Give before you take. Put the needs of your new networks before your own. Offer advice, connect members to resources and participate in their blog discussions. Network building is relationship building. Once you've developed the relationship, you can seek business support. "A lot of newcomers make the mistake of being too aggressive," says Amanda Nissman, co-founder of Networking for Professionals in New York City. "They feel they need to sell, sell, sell--and if they don't see it [the sale] in two minutes, they leave. That can be pretty off-putting."
Manage your image. Maintain professionalism in person and online. Dress well, double-check all e-mails, blogs and posts before publicizing them, and by all means keep your party pics out of the social network pages. Just because you ignored friend requests on Facebook doesn't mean potential friends can't see your page. You are in charge of what people can find out about you. "It's no one's fault if your personal and professional brand are not perceived as you want it," Shankman says. "You can't blame Facebook or Twitter."
Give it a human touch. Handshakes and avatars can work well together, which is why many people are making a point to meet their cyber connections in person. Most cities have tweetups, which are face-to-face events for local Twitter users. Organizations like Netparty also offer online and offline networking events for young professionals.
Finally, take advantage of the web's in-person networking outlets when you're on the road. Not only will you meet future online connections, you'll also hook up with people in another city, exposing you to an entirely different market.