You've put a lot of time into building up a huge network of people by going to conferences, attending industry events, and reaching out to people you admire. Great!
But if you simply store these contacts in your address book, only reaching out when you’re job hunting or looking for a specific introduction, you might as well not have a network at all. After all, if your connections don’t feel they have much of a relationship with you, they probably won’t be very inclined to help you. They might not even remember who you are.
Maintaining a thriving, active network takes time, planning, and even a bit of creativity. But if you put in the effort, the impact it will have on your career will be well worth it. Here’s your action plan to make sure your connections don't go to waste.
Setting Yourself Up for Success: Track & Schedule
The first step in staying on top of your network of relationships is staying organized. I adopted this technique after reading Keith Ferazzi’s book Never Eat Alone, and while it may sound a bit tedious, the payoff is worth it!
Start by setting up a spreadsheet to track your contacts with the following columns: Name, Job Title, Company, Industry, Contact Information, Score (I'll explain this in a moment), City, First Date of Contact, Last Date of Contact, and Notes.
Put all of your professional contacts into the spreadsheet. For the "Score" column, develop a system for ranking your contacts based on how often you want to stay in touch: For me "1” means monthly contact, "2” means I touch base quarterly, and "3” means I reach out every six months to a year. In the "Notes" column, write down what interests your contact has, including what you bonded over or what you know he or she likes based on your online research.
Next, make tending to your network a priority by actually putting time on the calendar to do it. I schedule separate times each week for reaching out to new people and for touching base with people already in my spreadsheet. It may sound silly to formally schedule it, but if you don’t, it means you’re not really prioritizing it—and it probably won’t get done.
Keeping in Touch: Adding Value to the Relationship
Now that you’re all organized, it’s time to go from being someone your contacts met once at a conference to someone they look forward to hearing from. But how do you develop a relationship with someone without being overly pushy? Here are a few of my favorite ways to keep in touch:
Share Favorite Articles
We’ve all heard this tip before, but how often do you actually do it? Emailing links to relevant articles with a brief, thoughtful analysis is probably the easiest way to keep up a relationship. Use Delicious or another bookmarking service to keep track of articles you’ve really enjoyed. Then, when you sit down to reach out to your contacts, go through the bookmarks to see if there's anything relevant that you can send them (your “Notes” column will be incredibly helpful for this).
One of the best examples of this technique appears in a blog post by Jon Miller, VP of Marketing and Co-Founder at Marketo. While he talks about it in the context of nurturing sales leads, I actually think it works to add value to your network as well. Write emails like these, and I promise that you will not be forgotten!
Give the Run-Down of a Good Book
Get in the habit of typing up notes on the best books you’ve read that are related to your industry or that are about interests you share with your contacts. Then, convert the notes into a PDF and send them to anyone who might find them interesting. (I learned this technique from a video podcast entrepreneur Maneesh Sethi did with ESPN anchor James Swanwick.)
Bonus tip: If you use a Kindle, you can copy and paste your Kindle highlights from your Kindle account page and then format them to look like book notes (it's a huge time saver!).
Give Them a Pat on the Back
Show contacts that you’re paying attention by congratulating them on career milestones. Use Newsle to keep tabs on what's going on in your contacts' lives (or set up Google Alerts for your closest contacts). When they get a new job, give a great presentation, or publish an article on a major website, send them a quick note to congratulate them on their milestones and tell them that you admire the work they are doing.
But remember to be specific! Telling your contact exactly why you liked his or her article or what part of the conference speech you saw online really stuck out to you will make your message much more memorable than a simple “congrats.”
Thank Them for Their Influence
Did you finally decide to pitch that article you've had in your head because of something a contact said on Twitter? Did a recent article by one of your contacts make you re-think your career strategy? When people inspire you in any way, tell them! No matter how busy they are, most people love hearing that they have made a difference in someone else's life.
Want to know exactly how to word your emails? I Will Teach You to Be Rich’s Ramit Sethi wrote a great article with actual email scripts for adding value to your network.
Set Up a Date
Email is a great way to stay in touch, but connecting with people in-person is invaluable if you want to build a long-lasting relationship. So, if geography permits, invite people out to coffee or lunch now and then every few months (so you don’t seem over-excited). Depending on the nature of your relationship, you can position the meeting as a chance to simply touch base or as an opportunity to talk about something specific, like a project you think you can help with.
If you’re traveling, make sure to carve out some time to visit contacts you don’t get to see as often. When planning a trip, use your spreadsheet to sort your contacts by city so you can easily see who you should invite to grab lunch.
Keep in mind that not everyone will respond to your emails or accept your coffee date invites, but don't let a non-responder bring you down. If you establish a regular, friendly rapport with even just 20% of the people you have on your list, you'll see a massive shift in the power of your network to bring you new opportunities. People will start to reach out to you when they hear of job openings and send you relevant information. And if you do need to tap your network for a recommendation or advice, people will be much more willing to help you out.
Photo of man networking courtesy of Shutterstock.