1. Be clear and direct about what you want. No matter the medium you use, it's essential to be clear and concise about what you're looking for. If you want to know of potential opportunities, say so and don't waste your contact's time. Just make sure to be appreciative and thankful in your notes, and if possible, see if you can return the favor. So many of us are worried about being overly self-promotional that few of us actually are. Don't shy away from stating the obvious so you can get the help you need.
2. Mention a username on Twitter. While many people use Twitter as a broadcast medium, the platform works best for your career when you use it conversationally. Catch someone's attention by mentioning their handle in your tweet. A mention is an update that contains "@username" somewhere in the tweet. Reply to a desired contact's tweets, or take it a step further by directly tweeting at the person you want to meet to start a conversation. Twitter is like a coffeehouse, where everyone is talking over each other and can hear what you're saying. Craft your updates accordingly, and start small, with something like "Awesome article, thanks for sharing," before you make a big request.
3. Use hashtags on Twitter. People use the # symbol before a word or phrase to categorize their tweets and help them appear in Twitter's search. Clicking on a hashtag will show you all other Tweets marked with that word or phrase, and you can save your search to follow topics of interest over time. This is really useful since many industry leaders, both local and national, have created relevant hashtags for their communities to follow. Both offline events and online events, called Twitter chats, will also use hashtags to record and supplement the event's activities. You can join the conversation by using the same hashtag yourself, and discover new people, information and contacts to follow as well.
4. Leverage LinkedIn to link up in real life. Increasingly, more users on LinkedIn only connect with people they have met in real life. When you send a message to a potential connection, ask if they'd like to grab coffee. Is your desired contact in another city or state? No problem. See if you'll both be attending an upcoming conference or event so you can meet face-to-face, and if you don't have any overlap in your schedule, suggest a Google Hangout or Skype conversation. Take the appropriate time to prepare, and know what you want from the meeting so you make a strong first impression.
5. Reach out to event organizers on Meetup.com. Research local meetups in your area, and reach out to the Meetup organizers by using the Contact button on the group's home page. Meetup organizers are likely to be well connected and can direct you in the proper direction and introduce you to other appropriate people if you send a nice email. Investigate the organizer's group and background so you can be specific and knowledgeable in your request. Finally, make sure to follow up by attending an event and solidifying the relationship in person.
6. Join a Facebook group. Facebook groups differ from pages in that a Facebook page is similar to a normal profile on the site; a brand or person posts updates and they have a wall that their fans can post on. Groups are more about conversation and community. They are often closed or invite-only (although not always, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the privacy settings before you post), and consist of a small group of people. You will often find more intimate and honest conversations in a Facebook group, and many participants are often very eager to help fellow group members.
Online networking is a great way to connect with people who can help your career and discover new leads. Start meeting people now and expand your network with little more effort than it takes to hand over your business card.
Rebecca Thorman's weekly blog Kontrary offers tips to create the career, bank account, and life you love, and is a popular destination for young professionals. Her goal is to help you find meaningful work, enjoy the heck out of it, and earn more money. She writes from Washington, D.C.