The truth is that all of the above are required to build and nurture an effective network. Like any marketing system, networking is a layered, iterative process that includes several key steps. Casting a wide net is important in marketing to help ensure that your message reaches the largest possible audience. Social media and email marketing tools are helpful to building lists and keeping them alive with occasional thought-provoking topics and news announcements. From a business development perspective, we’ll call this step one.
If step one is all about building lists of prospective networking partners, then step two is making a personal impression. This literally means showing up at networking events and meetings to introduce yourself so that people become of aware of you and the value you offer to them and people they might know. Repeating this action builds relationships as people get to know you personally and become more comfortable reflecting your message and value to others. Some will immediately make the right connection, but most will not and for them it takes time.
Step three is developing and nurturing relationships. This only happens one-on-one. All the social media and group meetings combined cannot develop effective, meaningful trusted relationships as well as personal face-to-face conversations can. Of course, you can only meet so many people in one day so this requires a very selective approach. In the beginning, if you are new to networking in your area you cannot afford to be too choosy until you establish a reputation and a networking presence. However, as quickly as possible you will want to meet with people who appear to offer the greatest return on your investment in time and relationship building efforts over time. In this stage, you are not looking for leads or sales opportunities as much as you are building a rapport and a personal relationship with the other party. Turn on the sales mode too soon and you are likely to turn them off.
Step four, a natural development from step three, is all about service. As you develop the relationship with your new networking friend, listen carefully for anything that sounds like a need for expertise or a resource. Carefully note any of those perceived needs and then plan on working to find solutions for them later on. If you can identify other people in your network that may serve the need you identified, follow up with an email thanking them for the meeting and recommending the resource. Include contact information for the resource so they can follow up directly. Never communicate any expectation of reciprocal behavior or compensation for productive referrals of this nature. Also, do not recommend someone you do not actually know. If the resource is simply someone connected to you on a social network page, or referred by another friend, then make it clear to the networking contact that you have heard of this person that seems to fit what they were looking for but you have no direct experience with him/her. This activity goes a long way to demonstrating to the other party that you are listening to them and that you care enough about the relationship to take the time to make the referrals.