Professional networking: How to make connections and grow your business

When you think of networking, the image that often comes to mind is a large room of people walking around passing out business cards. Although it is important to get out and meet other professionals in your area when possible, there are so many other opportunities today to build your professional network that does not include going to events. Building your professional network is something you can do every day. Here are some ways to help you expand your network this year. 

What does it mean to build a professional network? 

Professional networking is not about meeting people just to increase your sales, awkwardly forcing a card into their hand. Networking is so much more. If you take the time and do it right, it can change your business and your life. Before we can dive into ways to grow your professional network, first let’s determine what it is and why it’s important.

Merriam-Webster defines networking as:

the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions—specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.

The key to this definition is the “cultivation of productive relationships.”

Cultivation means that networking does not happen overnight. Most often you need to engage with contacts multiple times to foster a relationship of mutual respect and trust. Respect is earned and not given so you’re going to have to put in some work.

The second part of that key phrase is “productive relationships,” meaning the relationship must be mutually beneficial to everyone involved. It’s not so much about you getting something out of your network but also what you can give. If you are selfish and are only in it for you, people will catch on. When they do, as fast your network grew, it will shrink even faster. If you can provide value, people will respect you for it and do their best to return the favor. 

How important is my professional network anyway?

Growing your business is the most obvious reason for professional networking, but your relationships can help you in other ways too. For example, the people you know can help you find top talent to hire. Rather than blindly accepting candidate applications having someone in your network that you respect and trust who can recommend a candidate may help take away some of the frustration and risk that comes with hiring a complete stranger. 

Your network can also help you find products and services. Let’s say you want to buy the latest and greatest 6K camera, but you’re not sure if it’s the right fit for you. Maybe someone in your network already bought that camera and can share their experience. What if after you, bought it, you ran into an issue? Someone in your network may have had the same problem, figured out it and is willing to help you. Now you just eliminated the possibility of having to reshoot or deliver a poor product to a client with the help of your network.

Most importantly, growing your professional network can help you mature personally and professionally. As individuals and professionals, we want to interact with one another and be recognized for the work we do. By growing your professional network you are learning how to interact with others. You are also gaining valuable knowledge and sharing your expertise with people looking for the same things you are. Making these connections and friendships will help you become a more complete individual. 

Who are the most valuable people to keep in your network?

Now that you know what a professional network is and why it’s important, who should you have in your network? The best place to start is with the people who know you best, your friends and family. Reach out and let them know what you do and see if any of them need any help and advice. Learn a little bit more about what they do. No matter how close I am with my immediate family and friends, it sometimes amazes me how little they know of what I do. Make sure to reach out and have those business conversations too.

Don’t write off school once you’ve graduated.

Next, try to connect with any of your former teachers or classmates. Connect with them on social media. If you can connect with them on LinkedIn, even better. Your teachers may be able to introduce you to new talent coming out of school. Teachers could also connect you with clients that come looking for video help but aren’t sure where to get started. Former classmates could be great to bounce ideas off of or potentially hire for your next project. The same goes for you; your classmates may want your help coming up with ideas or on they made need to outsource some work. 

Staying connected with one of my teachers was instrumental for me in starting my business. My teacher connected me with a client who reached out to my school looking for help creating a how-to video. That client eventually wanted monthly training videos, which provided a base for my company to get started. Without the support of that client, I may not have gone into business and gotten to where I am today. All of this came from staying connected with a past teacher.

All work and no play makes you miss opportunities

Another major source in your professional network that often gets overlooked is your existing client base. This one’s easy to miss, especially when you are in the process of working with them on their project. These connections, however, can be a great source of additional connections. Since you spend so much time working with your clients to help create their content, you really get an opportunity to know them on a more personal level.

I treat every contact I make as a friend and professional contact. That includes potential clients that I haven’t even worked with yet. I will often try and find a common interest with potential clients. Something that allows us to connect and lets them see that I actually care about them. Even if they don’t work with you this time around, you’ve still gained a new connection and friend. That could be more valuable than the one project they may have done with you.

Our potential clients had such a pleasant experience that they recommended us to their friends and peers.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been recommended to new clients by people that we quoted for work but didn’t work with us for budget or other reasons. Our potential clients had such a pleasant experience that they recommended us to their friends and peers. You never know who your clients know, what company they may move to in the future, or if they are going to need more work done.  

Past clients can also be forgotten in your professional network, but they can also be great sources of connections. Most times we think of a project as a checklist. Once we’ve checked everything off the list we’re done and it’s time to move onto the next. However, try to find ways to stay connected to past clients.

We like to check in with our past clients every six months or so at the very least. We ask how their video’s performing, if they need another copy of the file, if they have any questions about video production/video marketing, and generally how business is going. Not only does this make them feel like more than a signature on a contract, sometimes their challenges can even spark more ideas for projects.

Past clients are also a great source of referrals and feedback on how your company operates and how it can improve your customers’ experiences. 

Make sure you don’t rule out your mentors and peers

Finally, two other groups to include in your professional network are your mentors and peers. Both are equally as important, but in very different ways. 

Mentors are people that have been where you are and know where you’re going. They are killing it in their industry and can help provide you with advice, connections and feedback. You are also providing them an opportunity to be helpful and share knowledge — and get to the next stage of growth in their professional journey. Mentors don’t have to be someone that you’ve met in person or someone that you communicate with regularly. Find someone that resonates with you. You want someone you can learn from and reach out to for advice. Even if it’s only on social media.

Peers are another important piece for your professional network. With your peers as your connections, you have access to talent you can hire for larger projects such as grips, gaffers, and audio engineers. I also make it a point to network with peers who work for or run with competing businesses to mine. I like to find out if any of my peers have specialized skill sets such as creating motion graphics, 3D animation, or live web streaming. If I’m not confident in handling a special project for my client, I want to at least be helpful and connect them with the right person.

Take the time to talk to your peers and really form connections. Grab a (virtual) coffee or drinks, follow them on social media and focus on providing value as much as receiving it. You never know when someone with unique or similar skills can be a huge help to you professionally.

How do you build your network?

You know who the valuable people are to keep in your network, but where do you find them and how do you connect with them? One of the great things about the networking landscape in 2020 is there are so many different ways to interact and get social with other people. All it takes is dedicating a little bit of time each week to networking and before you know it you’ll have a bigger network than Mark Zuckerberg.

Warm-up those cold calls

Reaching out cold to new people, clients and peers is intimidating enough, and adding a phone to the mix doesn’t help the matter. Most people are not a fan of cold calling. Instead, I do a little bit of research on the person that I am contacting. Do a quick Google search, check their Linkedin, and watch some of their Youtube videos.

Then, I use some of the information that I gained to write a personalized email to that individual. In that email, I talk about them and their accomplishments. I tie it in with wanting to add them to my network. At the end of the email, I say I’m going to follow up with a call to check-in. Now, when I make that call, it’s no longer a cold call. Instead, it’s a warm call. I have an email I can reference, and I know a little bit about the person that I’m calling. This allows me to actually hold a conversation instead of trying to talk to a stranger on the fly.

Get involved, give back, and join professional associations.

Did you know that there are ways you can effect change in your community, your industry and the world all while networking and adding people to your professional network? You can do this by getting involved in organizations, nonprofits and professional groups. This is one thing that has been a huge help for our business. We have gotten involved and donated some video services to local nonprofits that we believe in. We have joined a couple of organizations in the Cleveland area and sit on some of their boards and leadership groups. This has allowed us to meet other business owners (some very prominent) in our community, make new friends and meet other creatives. We also get to give back to causes that we are passionate about, and we have gotten to know, like, and trust the people we work with. An that has also led to business opportunities. 

Mixing up and at networking mixers

Another opportunity to meet people is by going to monthly networking events, mixers, and professional conferences. If you feel like you do better face-to-face, this is your time to shine. Make sure you bring some business cards and try to talk to people. Don’t talk about yourself, instead, ask people about what they do and what brings them to the event. Make sure you listen and actively care and participate in the conversation. If someone has a problem, even if it’s not related to what you do, and you can help them then do. I think of networking as an opportunity to learn about other businesses and train to become a salesperson for people in my network.

One thing I do is sit down at the beginning of the month and pick two networking events to attend. Then the next month I switch them up among other groups or formats. Virtual meetup events can also be a great alternative when it’s not possible to attend in person.

Let’s get social with social media

One more thing you could do is get active on social media. The great thing about this option is that you can do it from home. Pick your favorite platform of choice and start looking for contacts. I recommend LinkedIn to start and from there you can invite contacts to other platforms.

One thing I always do after I start working with a client or meet someone at an event is to go to LinkedIn the next day and connect with them. This allows me to see who we may have as mutual connections. It’s a great way to find common friends that you can reference when you talk to them next. You never know; one of your best friends may be great friends with them as well. Sometimes, that can be the difference in getting a new job or making a new connection. Get social, like and comment on their posts, and actually engage. This will go a long way towards growing your network.

Now that you have people in your network how do you maintain it? 

Now that you have a bunch of different people in your professional network how do you maintain it? Maintaining your professional network can be fun and easy. All it’s going to take is a little bit of time and effort on your part. Don’t think of this as work because it’s really not. This is an opportunity for you to grow your relationships and your social skills and even have fun all at the same time!

Don’t wait to reach out until it benefits you 

The biggest thing you need to do is reach out to people in your network regularly. You can do this in a variety of different ways. You want to pick the method that’s most appropriate for the situation.

For example, if you want to check in and see how business is going with a member of your network that you don’t talk to often, consider sending them a direct message on social media, an email or a text. That way, you can check-in without taking up a bunch of their time.

Phone calls are great but I like to reserve those for catching up with people that I feel a little closer to or if I need to talk to someone about a larger topic that would require a lot of follow up through email or text. Nothing is worse than when you trying to get work done and someone calls you just because. 

Nothing is worse than when you trying to get work done and someone calls you just because. 

You also want to make it a point to watch people in your network’s social media profiles and posts. Don’t be afraid to offer congratulations, words of encouragement, answers to questions, take polls, or even leave the occasional gif and emoji. This is a great way to let people know that you care and that you are paying attention to them.

Even though the conversation may just be through social media, make sure to remember what you commented on. That way the next time you talk to that person on the phone or in-person, you can reference the post. This is a great way to connect personally. Remember, people like to do business with people they like and feel comfortable with. 

Follow up after your projects

Following up with past clients is huge, so much so that I thought it deserves to be mentioned separately from reaching out to contacts in your networks. I try to make it a point to watch my client’s social media channels and websites the most. I do this for two reasons, reason one is that I want to make sure the video(s) we made for them are performing properly. Reason number two is to make sure they are implementing them properly. That way when I follow up with them we can discuss what I’ve observed.

I’ve found that clients are shocked and amazed that I cared enough to check. This gives me an opportunity as well to get feedback on our company and try to make connections for my clients with other people in my professional network. At that point, they have transitioned from a past client to a business connection.

Nothing beats personal connection

Outside of social media, phone calls, and emails I recommend getting together with people from your professional network for one-on-one or group meetings whenever possible. Meet up and grab lunch, coffee, and a cookie, or unwind at happy hour. Or these days, a shared latte over video chat can be just as good. Casual, face-to-face interactions are a great way to get to know someone on a deeper level.

The trick is don’t just talk about you and your business. Ask your connections about their business, their family and their interests. And make sure you actually pay attention and care because at the end of the day what we are really building is friendships. After all, people like to do business with those they know, like and trust. The only way to get there is to put in some time, stay connected, and make it a point to care about these relationships.

Bill Baraona
Bill Baraona
Bill Baraona is a video production and marketing professional based in Cleveland, Ohio. He also runs the day-to-day operations at Flex Media.

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