Because LinkedIn is the premier global platform for professional networking, it is likely that you will be able to develop a number of contacts through the site (after all, you need 50 or more to be an “All Star” level user). But developing an electronic network is not the endpoint—it is the beginning—if you are expecting to cultivate an effective, enduring relationship. To accomplish a true relationship, you need to translate your electronic connections into real-world, physical networks. No, it is not always possible, especially with global enterprise businesses, but it is absolutely vital to networking among small and medium businesses (SMB). So, how do you go about cultivating that network?
First, of course, is gaining connections. There are numerous ways to accomplish this, but the key is to remain active with connections after making the link. For example, you will see people with the acronym “LION” on their profile—these people openly invite anyone to connect with them, and often have thousands of connections; however, it is literally impossible for them to develop a meaningful relationship with that many connections; LinkedIn connection counts in your profile header are capped at 500+. It does not matter how many connections you make, what matters is how many you can keep and make meaningful. The real benefit is not just from your first level connections (the ones directly connected to you); rather, the true benefit of LinkedIn connections is your second level—those people connected to the person with whom you have a direct connection. Don’t forget to examine your connections’ connections to see if there are professionals who may best suit your networking needs … and you may suit theirs (remember, networking is a two-way street).
Much like the “real world,” LinkedIn presents opportunities to gather and exchange information, opinions, and professional information. These opportunities present themselves in four useful options—sharing updates and media, sharing posts (the LinkedIn Blog feature), commenting and responding to updates and posts, and participating in LinkedIn groups. While the first three methods are also available on platforms like Facebook and Google+, what makes LinkedIn powerful for professionals is the “Groups” feature that brings together professionals with common industries, interests, and goals into an electronic venue that resembles a meeting room, but with asynchronous participation.
Sharing Information and Media. In order to keep from being “invisible” on LinkedIn, you need to be posting something at least once every week. This puts your name up on the news feeds of all your contacts regularly, so you keep yourself visible to them. Sharing is a brief (character-limited) posting to present ideas, links to articles or other meaningful material about which you discuss, or an image for which you provide a brief description or commentary.
Posts. The “Publish an Article” feature is the integrated Blog capability of LinkedIn. This allows you to share extensive discussion on a topic, including an image that helps accentuate your “Blog” post. This is a great way to elicit comments or start a discussion, whether in general (on your wall and your connections’ news feeds) or within a LinkedIn group.
Comment and Respond. Again, you must approach this LinkedIn environment with the perspective of it being a two-way street. If you see an interesting discussion or media shared by a connection, take the time to write a meaningful comment—people feel good about themselves when they notice that others are actually paying attention and reading what they take the time to share. This may have the effect of starting a discussion among connections relative to the shared material. Likewise, when someone comments on your material, take the time to continue the conversation by responding with a substantive, or at least professional, reply. When people see that you value their interaction, they are more likely to continue interacting. In both these cases—commenting and responding—starting and continuing the conversation may lead to an ongoing or more in-depth professional relationship.
Groups. This is the key function that sets LinkedIn apart from other social media platforms. The Groups feature provides a segmented networking area for professionals with complementary industry, interests, and goals to have asynchronous collaboration among colleagues. Groups may be either public (anyone may join in) or private (the group moderator approves those who request to join). Especially germane to the private group function, this feature provides an environment to start and continue conversations within a focused area of interest or business. It is within groups that the realization of meaningful relationship may be cultivated with the professionals best suited to your networking goals.
Once you make local area connections, take the opportunity to nurture the relationship, learn more about each other as professionals, and then invite your connection to meet. This can be over a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop, a venue of mutual interest, or even visit each other’s office to learn more about what each of you does—similar to the career-seeker who requests an informational interview with a company in which they have an interest. With technology driving so much of what we do, we often forget that human interaction is comprised of 80% nonverbal messages—something that comes out in person-to-person meetings.
Finding Networking Opportunities in the Phoenix Area
Another way to translate electronic contacts into physical relationships is through networking groups in your local area. In the Phoenix metro area, there are myriad opportunities each week to attend networking groups. The following represent a sample of the most common venues for networking in the Phoenix metro area.
Chambers of Commerce. The various Chambers of Commerce sponsor networking or leads groups throughout their purview to facilitate bringing professionals from Chamber member companies and organizations together regularly in small groups. Typically, these groups have rules, most of them allowing only one professional from each type of business to be a group member (this keeps from having direct competition within the group). The groups provide an environment where you may present your business, share leads, and even set up outside meetings to get to know another professional in the group better. The hitch? You need to be a Chamber member company or organization to participate in these groups.
Networking Events. Each day there are networking events happening throughout the Central Valley. These events range from wide open events to which professionals from any industry or organization may attend and participate, to focused groups based on industry, gender, ethnicity, location, and career level. Some opportunities are free of charge, while others may charge a nominal fee—in other words, they want you to “have skin in the game.” Some of the most prominent ones are listed below:
Networking Phoenix (www.networkingphoenix.com). Advertised as Phoenix’s leading resource for free comprehensive information on business networking events and professional networking groups in the Greater Phoenix area.
Meetup (http://professional-networking.meetup.com/cities/us/az/phoenix/). Meetup is one of the easiest platforms to use to find networking groups parsed out by specific criteria. It contains both free and paid networking groups and events. Adaptable to many cities from the website.
Network After Work (http://www.networkafterwork.com/city/phoenix). This program includes regularly scheduled paid ($12-$15) events for professionals, holding events in the evening so that they are outside most normal business working hours. Adaptable to many cities from the website.
Phoenix Business Journal Events (http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/calendar/). This site lists, in chronological order, events around the Central Valley. Adaptable to many cities from the website.
Referral 101 Network (http://101referralnetwork.com/). This is a paid membership group designed to facilitate the passing of referrals for business between member professionals. It spans many locations around the Loop 101 freeway.
Executives Network (https://www.executivesnetwork.com/). This paid attendance group meets in Scottsdale twice monthly. It is designed to promote leads for professionals in the Director or above level of management. It is pure networking and leads—not socializing as some other events may include. The networking group is led by Molly Wendell and George Fleming, spanning not only Phoenix but other major metro areas in the US as well.
Eventbrite (https://www.eventbrite.com/d/az–phoenix/networking/). Eventbrite has listings of many networking events in the Phoenix metro area, as well as nationwide. By substituting the name of another city for the word “phoenix” in the URL, you can find events in specific locations. Events listed there include both free and paid opportunities.
Networking encompasses many different options, from electronic to physical relationships, from C2B, B2C, and B2B objectives and goals, and from open to focused opportunities. In the end, the most important principles are the same across the board:
- Start the conversation
- Make meaningful connections
- Nurture your connections
- Continue the conversation
- Mutual support—not a one-way street
- Follow through
- Make networking a priority
Finally, the most important criterion for effective networking: Get up, get out, get going!