By Maria Thimothy, Sr. consultant at OneIMS who helps businesses grow by creating & capturing demand & managing & nurturing relationships.

Networking is often hailed as a panacea for helping businesses expand their reach and grow profits. In fact, networking is a term that is as overused and misunderstood as marketing, with people thinking that success in these areas means needing to indiscriminately reach as many people as possible. As a result, people find networking overwhelming and are unsure how to really make it work for them. The secret to good networking, much like good marketing, is finding the right audience. Instead of casting a wide net and hoping to find the right connections, learning to network organically and in a targeted way can be far less work and much more beneficial to your business. When it comes to networking, less really is more.

Be open to engagement.

No matter how business-centric the concept of networking is, at the end of the day, networking is about connecting with people. Much like in our personal lives, if you are not open to meeting new people and interested in them as individuals, you will probably fail to find meaningful and mutually beneficial connections. Think about networking as a two-way street where you can offer and receive benefits through the connections you foster. Be open to the idea that your next connection could come via any source, even ones that, at first, do not appear as potential networking opportunities.

For example, you may have a major client with whom you have a great relationship, but you’ve never thought to ask them for new business leads or referrals. Or it could be that a small startup business begins following you on social media and as you engage with them, you realize there is great opportunity for collaboration. Be open to reframing your interactions with people as all being chances for establishing a reciprocal business relationship, and you may find that networking opportunities are actually everywhere.

Seek like-minded people.

Being open to a wide array of potential networking opportunities gives you a better chance of finding the right people to connect with. However, what you want to avoid is spreading yourself too thin and wasting your time trying to connect with everyone when not everyone is the right fit for collaboration. You want to focus on finding like-minded individuals and organizations that have similar values as well as business goals so your relationship has a better chance of being mutually beneficial in the long term.

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To help focus yourself, take a look at your short- and long-term business goals as well as your plan on how to achieve them. Then look for businesses that are doing something similar, whether it is in the same business or in a crossover industry. They may be a more mature company with decades of experience or even a fresh startup with huge potential. But either way, focusing your networking efforts on those who have the same core values and approach to business as you do can help increase your chances of finding people to collaborate with who are passionate about the same things you are.

Identify what you have to offer.

We often think of networking from our own point of view. In other words, we look for the benefits we are seeking and forget to consider what we have to offer to the other party. In order for networking to work, both parties need to see a benefit. This is why it is important not only to identify what you would like to achieve through networking, but also potentially what you have to offer others as a partner or collaborator.

By sitting down and determining what your strengths and weaknesses are, you can be better positioned to identify what types of businesses or individuals are looking for what you are offering. This can not only help you further narrow down the types of individuals and businesses with whom you should be interacting and building relationships, but also weed out those you know won’t be fruitful relationships to pursue. Knowing what you have to offer others can help you develop a more targeted approach to networking and help you focus on finding the best fit for networking partners.

Act natural.

Networking should not be an overwhelming exercise in trying to reach as many people as possible. Instead, it should be a very natural part of your regular business activities where the individuals and businesses with whom you regularly interact are all potential networking opportunities. Chances are that if your current business connections are functional and mutually beneficial, then it is a good indicator that you are of like mind and share the same values. This means that your current connections are far better conduits to finding other networking opportunities than approaching people cold.

By being aware of what you have to offer other businesses as partners, you can really hone in on who exactly will be worthwhile reaching out to, and what networking relationships will be the most mutually beneficial. Networking is a powerful tool and needn’t be a huge undertaking. Rather, it is best done on a daily basis, looking for all the opportunities that are already naturally at your disposal.

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