Networking is not about collecting business cards or building a large list of contacts. Whether through in-person meetings or via social media, it is an essential tool for building the relationships and strategic partnerships that are critical to business growth.

Hand ShakeLike all successful business endeavors, networking requires a sound plan and proper execution to achieve the best results. Some people have no problem striking up conversations, while others find it daunting to walk into a room filled with strangers. As we get ready to celebrate Columbus Day, we’re sharing a few simple strategies to help you “discover” how, with a bit of practice, you can network efficiently and effectively.

Have a Game Plan

From formal networking events and business meetings to happy hours, classes, and volunteering, the list of networking opportunities is almost endless. However, as a business owner, you don’t have time to waste. The key to making the most of the time you spend networking is to have a game plan for what you want to accomplish.

Some organizations, meetings, and events are based more on exchanging knowledge and ideas than on strictly making business connections. Others may be ideal if you are seeking funding for a startup, but a waste of time if you are looking to hire a CPA for your growing business. Getting clear about your goal – whether it’s to meet a specific number of people, learn something new, or develop new business – makes it easier to zero in on the opportunities that will help you get what you need.

Find the Right Room

Many business professionals make the mistake of looking for the right connection in the wrong room. Finding the right groups is sometimes a process of trial and error, so you might consider initially casting a wide net. If you’re new to networking, make an effort to attend a few meet-ups a month hosted by professional organizations or groups that are relevant to your business-building goals. The objective is to introduce yourself to people you haven’t met and find out if you have common services, interests, or needs.

Over time you will need to be more strategic in targeting key groups. Local chapters of large organizations in your industry are often good places to start. Your chamber of commerce and rotary club may also be valuable resources for making connections with local businesses and service providers. You might also find value in niche groups, such as those focused on women-owned or minority-owned businesses or young professionals.

Keep in mind that a great connection can come from an unlikely source, so consider attending events that aren’t completely aligned with your objectives. Look outside your industry for potential contacts, or expand your network to include professionals with various levels of experience, not just your peers. The bottom line: if there aren’t people with the resources to help you achieve your goals, move on.

Talk Less, Listen More

Perhaps the most important strategy for effective networking is to remember that this is not the time to tout your skills and experience, make a sales presentation, or tell your life story. It’s an opportunity to get to know other professionals and forge meaningful relationships.

If you want to make a memorable first impression, avoid shameless self-promotion. Instead, craft an elevator pitch that quickly conveys what you do, who it benefits, and what makes you and your products or services different from everyone else. Prepare questions you can ask other people about themselves and their business. Find out what interests him or her and what needs or challenges they may have. Everyone has problems, and they are more likely to work with you or refer you to others if you can articulate how your business takes a unique or unrivaled approach to solving those problems.

Remember that networking is a two-way street. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when networking is to think only about what you can get from others. Take the time to get to know people and not just get a lead or a referral. Facilitating an introduction or sharing information about their area of expertise is a way of adding value. Chances are they will remember you when they have the opportunity to offer value in return.

Follow Up and Follow Through

In order for networking to work, you need to follow up with the contacts you’ve made. It’s helpful to make notes on the back of the business cards you collect about future actions you want to take. Send valued contacts a short email letting them know you’d like to continue the conversation. Use business-driven social media platforms like LinkedIn to deepen relationships with new contacts. If there is someone you want to connect with again in person, initiate the next meeting.

The same holds true with referrals. Get in touch by email shortly after the meeting or event, and include the person who referred you in your initial correspondence. Regardless of the outcome, always remember to thank someone for helping you. What goes around comes around.

Focus on ways to make the relationship mutually beneficial. If you are always asking your contact for something and never giving, they will stop answering. It is critical that you understand how you can add real value to the relationship.

Use Social Media Strategically

Although social media is a powerful tool for expanding your network, it often prevents or minimizes the chances of making real connections. The key is to include social media in your networking strategy but not to rely on it completely.

Move beyond your initial digital networking interactions to forge relationships with contacts who may prove valuable. Engage in your contact’s LinkedIn discussions and share their upcoming events or business wins on your network. Send the occasional email or message or, if you are both local, invite them to meet for coffee.

Networking is a skill that doesn’t come naturally for everyone, but it does get easier with a bit of practice and trial and error. Taking a pro-active approach will boost your networking confidence and help you make the most of opportunities to establish relationships that provide genuine value for you and your business.