Step 6: The professional networking strategy nobody showed you
This is step 6 of the road map to your first (or next) job.
Now that you’ve cultivated a professional presence online and have set up job notifications to come to you, it’s time to develop your professional networking strategy to build relationships and open new doors.
This is how you do it, step by step.
Networking is a crucial part of finding your next job, both in short and long term. The trick is to deliver value instead of asking for it, letting your connections come back to you over time in a steady drip-feed.
It comes down to preparation and giving.
Table of Contents
How to get real value out of networking
Buy business cards. They work.
How to find new contacts systematically
How to operate as a high-value networker
Tips for networking events (especially introverts)
How to get real value out of professional networking
In an interview with NPR, Matt Youngquist, President of Career Horizons, estimated that between 70% and 80% of job openings are unpublished.
There isn’t much documentation to support that claim despite its enduring popularity, but it’s true that networking is one of the best ways to get a job nevertheless. According to a study by Jobvite, referrals result in hires approximately 40% of the time—and you can’t get referrals without some good old-fashioned professional networking.
That’s a hell of a lot better than spending 2 hours putting your resume through an application tracking system just to hear nothing back, isn’t it?
of referrals are hired.
of job seekers actually get employee referrals.
of referrals stay for 2 years, compared with 20% of job board hires
Some people have trouble wrapping their heads around the concept of practicing networking to gain value, yet simultaneously giving away value and asking for none of it in return.
But that’s how it works.
You’re not going to be in a position to ask for favours right when you meet people, and that probably won’t change for a number of months. What you’re doing here is stockpiling trust and good will for when you need it.
“But Andrew, I’m unemployed—I need to cash in on that good will now.” I know. Been there, remember? That’s not going to work, though. If you’ve been following this road map diligently then you’re already pulling on all of the short-term and mid-term career levers to get a job.
Networking is about playing the long-term game. Networking can help you sidestep application tracking systems, get to know hiring managers before either of you think about working with each other, and gain work experience that gets you noticed by the right people.
If you accept that it won’t happen overnight, then you can expect to reap these rewards.
Become a trusted advisor
“Wait, so you want me to spend time networking so that people can take more of my time later? And you still don’t want me to ask for anything in return?”
Here’s why: people buy from those they trust. It’s a well-known principle of sales and marketing.
You can bet that similar principles apply to hiring managers, too. They want to hire people they trust—and that’s where networking comes in, for your purposes.
of businesses find it critical to buy from a trusted advisor.
You want people coming to you with their business problems for several reasons:
- It puts you in conversations that you’d never hear about otherwise.
- It puts you in a position to become a professional authority in your own right.
- People are inclined to seek your opinion because it turns you into a gatekeeper of knowledge, wisdom, and experience.
It also means that you’re the first to hear about opportunities worth your time.
Don’t lose sleep over the time investment here. You’re not going to spend precious hours doing this in lieu of lucrative job applications. This is extracurricular, but can pay serious dividends by opening up opportunities.
Gain referrals in the hidden job market with a professional networking strategy
It’s widely touted that the hidden job market accounts for 80% of all openings. That may actually be a myth in the digital age, since it costs next to nothing to post a job on Indeed, but you still need a personal angle to build inroads—setting yourself apart from all of the other external candidates.
Companies might refrain from posting job ads for any number of reasons, including these:
Quietly replacing an underperformer
Underperformers are everywhere in the working world, and it’s sickening. Managers probably don’t want to tip them off, though. That’s where connections in the know gain the advantage.
Hiring a firm to recruit people discreetly
Some companies just don’t have inroads in certain industries, or they don’t want to tip off competitors about their plans. That’s where recruiting firms come in (and familiar connections, too).
Overwhelmed with online submissions
Hiring managers get dozens, sometimes even hundreds of applicants per job posting. My second job had 200 applicants. Would you spend hours sifting through them, too?
Promoting an internal candidate
Promoting within is a great employee retention strategy. Unfortunately, that can leave outsiders unaware of those openings… unless you’ve networked with the hiring manager.
Becoming a referral (or even just familiar with the hiring manager) improves your odds of being hired dramatically. Since they stay with companies for more than twice as long as hires from job boards over two-year periods, you can bet that informed managers are constantly on the lookout for that kind of candidate. Professional networking pays off in the long run.
Discover freelance work opportunities
We’ve already covered how to get work experience methodically. If you’ve completed that step in the road map and reaped the rewards of skill development, a resume upgrade, and written recommendations, then you know that it’s all worth it.
You get even more of those opportunities through networking, and you can even get paid to do it.
When this happens to you it’s usually an extension of becoming a trusted advisor, and it’s amazing. It means that someone trusts you enough to actually pay you to do something specific for them. That goes a long way toward building your credibility as a professional, even if those freelance jobs are just stepping stones to reach full-time employment.
Buy business cards. They work.
Would you pay 10¢ for someone to remember you better after attending a professional networking event?
Obviously—and that’s where business cards come in.
You need business cards to network effectively. No, you shouldn’t be showering people in business cards after a brief handshake, but you do need a wallet-sized document that has your information on it.
Why? There are some key benefits to using business cards, according to the Adobe blog:
more sales per organization for every 2,000 business cards in circulation.
of people keep business cards (that's a lot).
Here to get hired instead of selling something? Think again. Getting hired in today’s job market essentially means selling yourself as a consultant.
I missed out on 3 or 4 good career opportunities while I was unemployed because I didn’t have business cards (or a professional networking strategy, for that matter). It’s kind of ridiculous because I had a LinkedIn profile, a website, and even a professional branded email address to go with them.
“Oh, just go to my website. Or my LinkedIn profile. Do you have a piece of paper? Pen? I bet someone around here does. I’ll be right back…”
It didn’t work. Not even once.
I passed up thousands of dollars of income because I was too cheap to pay $30 for a pack of business cards. I even put off getting them long after I revamped my freelance site and bought a professional logo for myself. I spent $200 on the logo and couldn’t bring myself to spend $30 on business cards.
It was nuts—and rooted in the mindset of an unemployed graduate trying to hoard every dollar “responsibly.” You end up wondering why you can’t just pay $5 for a smaller batch of them, but it’s a trap.
Don't be tempted into this thinking:
“I’m probably only going to hand out 15-20 of these over the next 3 months, so why pay $30 for 250 of them? Can’t I pay just $3 for 25 of them?”
Think about how it helps your job search instead:
“Will putting down $30 here and now enable me to build relationships and career moves that will land me a job down the road?”
So, will it help you build relationships?
The answer is yes. Yes, it will… with consistent networking.
I carry business cards around in my wallet for both my freelance brand and my day job. I’ve earned sales through inquiries I had no idea were out there because I was prepared. Just keep 5 business cards in your wallet for everyday use, and bring an extra 20 to every networking event you attend.
Where to find good prices on business cards
You can go to a local printer, but you’re also going to pay more there than online business card websites because they have to do custom work for every order.
There are more economical ways to get business cards, though. These companies specialize in creating them online for good prices:
Vistaprint makes some of the best bulk deals in business cards that I’ve ever seen. I’ve been using them since my first job, and continue to use them for my freelance business to this day.
The new(ish) kid on the block, MOO creates high-end business cards. It lets you design yours online and have it shipped to your home or business address. Seriously, they’re fancy.
Despite some unclear pricing and a lack of a “snap-in” alignment in the designer process, PSPrint offers some great prices and fast delivery with decent designs. They also have solid deals once in a while.
What you’re looking for are deals like “$10 for 250 business cards.” I used Vistaprint for mine since I didn’t know about the other options, and they turned out great. At an average cost of 10¢ per card, I feel just fine handing them out whenever someone’s interested. I don’t have to think twice about it.
Is the possibility of a job offer or contract worth 10¢ right here and now?
Without a doubt.
What you need to make a business card
All of those online business card websites have built-in templates that you can use, but they also have pretty sweet drag-and-drop card design screens that let you add a bit of customization (in most cases).
In my case, I use a freelance logo. If I didn’t have that then I might include a black-and-white image of myself matching my LinkedIn profile to add a visual splash to the card. It also helps you stick in people’s memories, which is ultimately the point of professional networking.
Gather all of this information before you start designing your business card:
Title (if applicable)
Company name (if freelancing)
Logo or headshot
How to design a business card
Just take this as general advice. There’s a lot of room for artistic expression, but this should keep your business card in the professional zone with crystal-clear contact information and a fairly sleek look.
Business info up-front
Put your actual information on the front side of the business card.
Images in the back
Put your logo or even headshot on the back of the card, surrounded by white space.
Names writ large
Make your name is the largest text on the front side of the business card. Your title and/or specialty will be smaller, and your contact info will be smaller still.
Titles are secondary
Include your title and/or area of expertise near your name. They shouldn’t compete for attention with your name, so make their font sizes a little smaller.
Contact info at the bottom
Include your contact information on the lower half of the front side. It shouldn’t dominate the card, but have a clear space below your name and title for easy access.
P.S. People tend to hold on to colored cards for 10 times longer than black-and-white cards.
If you have ideas for a personal brand, feel free to experiment with colors on the front side of the card.
Coloured business cards are kept 10 times longer than black and white ones.
One of those companies will likely have a promotional sale going on. Once you’ve designed your business card, give everything a second look and get someone else to proofread it before you actually order it. You don’t want to order a card design with a typo!
How to find new contacts systematically
Networking events are fine (and we’ll cover them later in this part of the road map), but they’re actually not the best way to grow your network and tap into the job market… not on their own, anyway. You need to build relationships organically, because real relationships are what makes professional networking worthwhile in the first place.
Don’t fret about not being “presentable” or looking like a recent graduate (within reason). That’s why we focused on writing a professional resume, creating a rockstar LinkedIn profile, building your work experience, and creating a portfolio website before getting to this point.
If you’ve been following the road map step by step, then you’re already presentable and ready to start networking (and do not skip on the business cards, seriously).
Start your networking close to home and then venture into new territory as you go. Here’s where to start.
Approach friends and family
This is one of the groups where you can break the rule about adding value instead of asking for it. Friends and family are here to help you. Approach 20 of them.
If you’re reading this to get your first “real” job then I assume any existing coworkers you have are in part-time jobs of some kind. Try to find 5 that you trust—past or present.
Work experience referrals
The third benefit from taking on new portfolio projects is that you can ask for referrals from your clients! Some of them may even come to you (one of mine did). Approach all 3!
Join volunteer organizations
Volunteer causes bring people together for reasons beyond business needs, which essentially resets the table for you. Talk to people who would normally be out of reach this way.
Business improvement groups
These associations tend to be local and made up of small and medium businesses. They have fewer resources and would love a generalist who can wear multiple hats on the job.
Join networking groups
Make a list of all the networking events in your area and plug their next 3 events into your calendar. Plan for them ahead of time and don’t make excuses to pass them up.
Canvass with political parties
You may or may not be in a position to try this, but it can open doors to businesses affiliated with the local chapter of your political party. See who you meet after 3-4 canvassing sessions.
Join skill development workshops
These associations tend to be local and made up of small and medium businesses. They have fewer resources and would love a generalist who can wear multiple hats on the job.
Attend some job fairs
Last and least are job fairs. I found they didn’t work all that well because they’re just in-person job boards, attracting thousands of graduates just like you. Play the odds and see what works.
If you pursue all of these opportunities, you should have a network that looks something like this:
- 20 friends and family members keeping an eye out for you.
- 5 coworkers keeping an eye out for you.
- 2-3 referrals from your 3 clients.
- 2-5 connections from a volunteer organization on your radar.
- 3-7 business connections from a business improvement area.
- 1-3 new connections per networking event.
- 1-3 new connections from a political party (optional).
- 1-2 leads from job fairs, estimating conservatively.
That’s a network in good shape, and most of it comes down to following this process and getting over the fear of putting yourself out there. It just takes time and dedication, but it’s not actually difficult to do!
How to perform high-value professional networking
There’s a reason I’ve put this before the section on networking events: you need to understand why most people fail at networking before you can do it successfully.
So, why do they fail? There are a few reasons.
Harvard Business Review found that people feel positive about the idea of networking, but actually feel “dirty” while doing it.
Novice networkers tend to expect something in return immediately, and that’s just off-putting. It’s a little bit predatory, and people pick up on that.
Pushing hard for a "sale"
A lot of people just hand out business cards like candy, which tells the rest of us they’re not really interested. Professional networking calls for personalization.
The better way is to help people and expect nothing in return. If you research this elsewhere you’ll see the phrase “delivering value” over and over again.
That’s why I’ve made this networking playbook for you. It works inside and outside of networking events, so keep it in mind whenever you meet a new connection.
Connect people for mutually beneficial opportunities whenever possible
Introduce people who can help each other, even if they’re not with you doing the hard work of networking alongside you. The truth is that you’ll evolve into a certain skill set as you build your career—you can’t be the right person for everybody’s business pains out there.
But you can be the next-best thing. That’s what referrals are all about.
Can’t make a website for someone, but you know who can? Make it a referral.
Not sure how to do market research, but you know someone who majored in economics? Referral.
Not great with presentations, but you have a friend on the supply teaching list? Referral.
Making a referral isn’t as valuable as being the person who can solve your connection’s business pain, obviously, but by referring people you’ve actually strengthened 2 connections instead of one, and they both have you to thank.
The key is to make a habit out of this instead of just trying it out once or twice. Network consistently and—in a matter of 3-6 months, usually—people will come to you when they need help with a problem.
Offer free advice or consultations
When you do have connections in your court who can benefit from your help directly, then it’s time to shine.
Don’t sell them on anything. Don’t pitch them anything.
Instead, just ask questions. Lots of questions. Ask all about these things:
Their business model
Their recent wins
Their biggest challenges
Events they like to attend
Causes they support
Their passion projects
Find out about their culture, your mutually common ground, and just learn about them. If they work in the services industry, swap hilarious stories about client requests (anonymously), or anything like that to break the ice.
After you’ve learned about each other and you’re on a first-name basis, offer to help them out with something in your area of expertise. Offer it like a favor, or even just a challenge you’d love to sink your teeth into.
Don’t even propose a project yet—just offer to take a look at whatever “it” is. In my case, I can take a look at people’s websites, their content, and their marketing funnels to give advice on where to make improvements. This is what professional networking looks like when you break it down into micro-steps.
Political animals with lots of connections to corporate and industry leaders don’t win the day, either. Yes, it’s important to know powerful people, but if they account for too much of your network, your peers and subordinates often perceive you to be overly self-interested, and you may lose support as a result.
Your goal here isn’t to sell them on something. Your goal is to demonstrate your expertise and to cultivate gratitude from the other party. Small and medium businesses are usually thrilled for the extra help, especially if it comes from a real (or growing) consultant.
Send individuals relevant news or content periodically
This is not something you do when you’re reaching out for the first time. This is a “nurture” tactic that keeps you in people’s orbits.
After you’ve made contact and met in person (or engaged through a social media group of some kind—however you’ve built a rapport), it pays to stay in touch with relevant news pieces. It’s a cost-effective and time-effective gesture that shows connections that you’re looking out for them, and it keeps you top-of-mind as well.
Just create a news reader for yourself (e.g. the free version of Feedly, or just customize your LinkedIn and Twitter feeds). When something relevant comes across one of your feeds, share it with them over a private channel. Email or LinkedIn’s Inmail work well.
This creates a flow of content that comes to you instead of forcing you to search for it manually.
Add some commentary to show why it’s relevant and to add a personal touch. For example:
Share the news
If your connection’s company is growing, then maybe share an article about a new commercial office building being built in town.
Show them business tools
If your connection mentioned how they want to get into more advanced marketing, then send them some cool software ideas that you heard about on a podcast.
Point them to industry events
Heard about a conference or a trade show that might interest one of your contacts? Shoot them a quick email about it.
You don’t want to overdo it, but you should keep an eye open for one of these professional networking opportunities once every few weeks and send something to one or two contacts. It’s a low-effort tactic with high reward and no tangible risk.
Celebrate connections’ successes publicly
Champion your connections in public. Make them feel like they’re a part of your tribe. Share in their successes and remind them of those successes if they appear to be going through low moments.
The best way to do this in a low-key way is to give them kudos over social media, but you can also drop by the office with a gift or a card if it’s a particularly high-value connection (just don’t get creepy about it). Here’s where you can look for those opportunities?
Landed a new job
Running a trade show booth
Published a new blog post
Sponsoring a cause
Launching a new service
Accepted an industry award
You don’t have to wait for something to happen, either (though it tends to feel more natural that way). If you want to move closer into a connection’s orbit, pick out a positive review on Google or Facebook and give them a public kudos. Compliment something they posted on social media. Take a moment to express how impressed you were with their team, or someone else you met connected with that person or company.
It’s a subtle tactic that brings you closer to specific people or companies. It makes you a more familiar entity—and that is advantageous when you’re applying for a job, proposing a freelance contract, or even just asking for an informational interview.
Ask for nothing in return
You read that right. Ask for nothing in return.
“But Andrew, why are we doing this if we don’t expect anything for it?”
Because asking for something and getting something are two different things. Reciprocity is still the core benefit of networking, but you probably won’t see the benefits for several months down the road.
If you ask right after doing somebody a favor, then it’s not really a favor. That kind of behavior is also off-putting.
But if somebody gets the warm fuzzies when they think of you because you’ve referred them to helpful people, leaned in with a free consultation, and made them feel good about themselves over social media, then they’re much, much more likely to shoot a favor back your way when the opportunity crosses their path.
I received a few benefits from people I networked with when I wasn’t even expecting it.
Even when I networked the wrong way and asked for help, I still received a helping hand from people who remembered how I treated them. These included:
Introductions to new companies
Not bad for someone who didn’t even know what he was doing at the time, right? Imagine how much more you could get out of long-term, professional networking if you just helped people for its own sake.
A note on the followup
I was planning to include a section on networking follow-ups, but it occurred to me that I had put just about everything worthwhile into the section on high-value networking.
It’s worth saying that you should still follow up with contacts you meet, but—as the previous section suggests—make sure that you add something useful or insightful in every interaction, if possible. I’m not saying that every single email exchange should contain a “helpful link,” but if some time goes by between interactions, then you should include some sort of additional value when you or the other person re-establishes contact.
Writing emails or messages isn’t all that hard when you can say “I saw this yesterday and thought of you.”
Tips for professional networking events (especially for introverts)
Even introverts need to network to advance their careers. You can’t skip out on this one just because you find it awkward!
You’re not alone if you do find it awkward. Many, many people do as well—even extraverts. Most other people there are as nervous as you are. I’m one of the biggest introverts I know, and even I’ve had to wave people over to so they’d join in on a conversation.
If you’re feeling anxiety, fear, or imposter’s syndrome at one of these events… try acknowledging the feeling without accepting it. Most people at professional networking events feel just like you. You don’t need to impress anyone if you don’t want to, nor do you need to walk out with a job offer. It doesn’t work like that in real life.
of people prefer to connect online than in person.
“That’s great, Andrew, but I still feel anxious anyway.” Here’s a brief playbook covering what you can do about that.
Figure out your “why” before arriving at an event
Nobody wants to hire someone else who’s just looking for a job, even though it’s often the economic reality for a lot of us at some point or another.
Networking events are geared specifically for people trying to get something from everyone else, even though we’ve established that it’s not a good way to network. As a result, people just kind of assume that you’re talking to them with an ulterior motive in mind.
That’s why it’s important to articulate your “why.”
You can call it whatever you want—a mission, a cause, a raison d’etre—that part doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you figure out the kind of angle you want your new contacts to remember about you. There’s a reason I recommended that you follow Simon Sinek in your social feeds way back in Step 2. Here’s what he has to say about human behavior.
He’s absolutely right. He was talking about marketing in particular, but the same principles absolutely apply to networking. Networking is essentially just marketing yourself as a professional. It just seems different in this road map because we’re focusing on substance rather than style.
Remember what you wrote for your objective headline in your resume? Remember your headline for LinkedIn? All you need to do is adapt that to suit a face-to-face conversation.
It’s the same exercise here, and if you’ve followed this road map from the beginning then you’ve essentially done it already.
Show what makes you tick
What compels you to pick something up again and say “I can do better?” That’s what you’re looking for as your lead-in when introducing and describing yourself.
Speak to your narrative
Your motivation comes from somewhere. It can be a moment of profound realization or even rock-bottom defeat. What matters is that people believe it.
Highlight your core skill(s)
You need to hint at what you do and how you do it. Once people understand what fuels your fire, they need to know what you do to get things done.
Remember Oli Gardner from Step 1? His mission was to put an end to bad marketing, which is why he created marketing software. Motivations put actions in context, but they also speak to values and personal standards. Those are the things you trust. It’s why you “have to get to know someone” before trusting them with more than a $5 bill.
Pro tip: Telling people about yourself gets a lot easier when you dress the way that works best for your comfort level.
Don’t overdo it on the formal dresswear. No tie or jacket in the world will improve your networking efforts if you’re sweating through them or if they make you feel uncomfortable.
Dress well, but not too formal. Being too well-dressed sends signals that you’re trying hard to impress someone, which brings us back to point #1 about ulterior motives. It also seems a little desperate in more relaxed professional cultures, but go with your gut (or your limbic brain, as Sinek would say).
Make body language work for you, not against you
Body language counts for a lot. It’s no secret that technology enables us to meet digitally instead of in person, but what might fly under the radar is how much interpersonal skills and body language mastery will set you apart in a world dominated by digital communication.
Do you want to be the person at professional networking events who confidently shakes hands without skipping a beat, or do you want to be the person that rambles nervously?
I’ve been both, but we both know which of those two are more impressive.
Point your feet toward people
People subconsciously point their feet where they want to go or where they’d rather be. Point your feet toward people so they pick up on signals that they have your attention.
Pro tip: You probably don’t need to be told, but just for good measure, keep yourself an arm’s length apart from everyone else. It’s the social convention. Don’t creep people out by standing any closer.
Focus on listening to make yourself more likeable
Follow these guidelines to make the most of your time, as well as to create deeper connections with the people you meet. It’s much more effective than showering people with business cards.
Prioritize 1-on-1 conversations
Two is a company, but three is a crowd. You’re going to have a hard time forming any kind of meaningful relationship if you have a third wheel in the conversation (or if you are the third wheel).
Ask follow-up questions the most
Follow-up questions show that you’re listening and that you take a genuine interest. Don’t shy away from stuff you don’t know about. Just say “I’ve heard of that but never tried it. What’s that like?” Get people talking.
Show support for everyone
Be supportive of everyone, but never condescending or dismissive. Everyone is on their own path; “lowly” job seekers today could be powerful allies a year or two down the line.
That’s all you can do. Networking events are about planting seeds more than harvesting them. People will generally come to you on their own time after a networking event, but you can also continue to build select relationships until you’re ready to propose something like a trial project.
It comes together with practice. You’ll feel anxious at networking events until you’ve gone to a few of them and know how to find your rythym.
Next steps after starting your professional networking strategy
Professional networking is a long-term process that never really ends. This road map just shows you how to equip yourself to do it properly, plus high-value tactics to get the most value out of it. Keep being the best, most helpful version of yourself whenever you meet new people. That’s the single best way to build a valuable network.
By the end of this road map, you should have:
Business cards with your photo or logo
A repeatable approach to build your network
A beginner’s network of about 30 people
A playbook to add value to your network
With this road map completed, you now have a powerful professional profile to support you. You also have a three-pronged strategy to find your next job:
- Applying for jobs online, with notifications coming to you every day.
- Earning referrals through your work experience projects.
- Finding job opportunities through high-value networking.
You may also have stumbled across a freelance project or two. If you do, run with it! That’s an awesome way to improve your professional credibility. Freelance experience was part of what got me hired in my second job, where my professional development really took off.
Next, we’re going to look at how to apply to jobs methodically. You’ve probably applied for many open positions already (and you should), but there’s a reason we’re covering this next step of the road map last; it brings everything together:
- Your crisp resume
- Your impeccable online profile
- Your work experience
- Your personal drive
If you’re in the middle of an application or two right now, read Step 7 before you finish them.
Are you ready?