Networking is one of the most common ways to get to know people and interact with them. So how do you connect with the people who are critical to the growth and success of your business?
Be Smart and Know Yourself
First and foremost, knowing yourself is key. Not knowing what success looks like will cause delays, confusion and frustration. Be very clear in pinpointing what matters most to you and how that manifests in your daily actions.
Making connections takes a well-thought-out plan, one that requires you to be SMART. In this case, you need to be:
Specific. You need a specific idea as to whom you want to connect with in 2014. Not everyone you meet will be beneficial. Seek out and actively connect with people who will help you grow personally and professionally.
Measurable. Word-of-mouth marketing is abstract, and thus putting conventional metrics to it is quite difficult. However, for the people you want to develop relationships with you must know how often you keep in touch, share information and connect. This is how you measure your efforts toward cultivating profitable connections.
Actionable. Once you've determined the kind of connections you want, set actionable goals to reach them. These are the steps that will take you to the next level in developing stronger connections, plus what you will use to monitor progress.
Realistic. Set realistic and achievable connection goals that reflect your potential and strengths. It's unrealistic to expect a 100 percent growth in referral and positive recommendations when you haven't put mechanisms in place for existing contacts to spread positive word of mouth about you. Focus on goals that take you to the next milestone level.
Timely. Every goal must have a time limit. You have no tangible plan in motion if it doesn't have a timeline to work with. Focus on a specific date, instead of using terms like "sometime soon" or "eventually."
Even with the goals, one thing has to be pretty clear: understand your strengths as a professional. Take the time to consider what you stand for, and what aspects about you communicate value, trust, reliability, character and credibility. Start acting on your goals once you have that clear picture in mind.
The Connections You Need to Know
Even before you go out to the networking events to make new connections, you already have a solid platform to start your connections: your contacts database. This is the time to take it out and closely consider segmenting your list for 2014.
First, cull your database for any outdated information. Some contacts will have changed their information, while others will have moved to new locations. Even if you don't own your own business, you can get some help in tasks like this. A virtual assistant can help to make sure you have the latest information on your contacts.
Next, rank your contacts in the following order: Those whom you barely know; those who know you by name and profession; those with whom you share something in common (you work at the same place, volunteer at the same places, go to the same church); contacts who you know, like and trust and who will sing your praises no matter what. Focus on those with whom you share a common frame of reference and those who already know, like and trust you. These are your profitable connections, and they make up the group of people to get to know better and focus on in 2014.
Further, segment this group of people according to the roles they'll play in your career, namely:
Advocates. This group includes past supervisors, past and present clients, instructors that tutored you in an area specific to your industry/niche, active members of your community (again, relevant to your industry) and those who have always supported you. Advocates will talk positively about you, and have a good insight into what you do.
Information providers. This group keeps up to date with current updates in your industry. They include speakers and trainers you've come across, heads of industry associations or regulatory bodies, authors, publishers/editors, auditors and mentors (people who've been in your position sometime in the past). Information providers will keep you on your toes with the latest happenings, and also give you valuable insights on how to navigate some of the minefields you'll come across.
Connectors. This group of people has great access to other people you may need to know. They include past and present clients, vendors/suppliers (people who view your success as essential to their success), friendly competitors (you sometimes collaborate or complement each other's services), an industry association head and someone you work with (client or not). It's a professional asset to have a great relationship with connectors who understand what you do completely, and who are ready to communicate that to their own networks.
Take the Lead
Once you've cleaned your database, segmented your contacts and identified advocates, information providers and connectors, your next step is to create a plan on how you will learn more about them and stay in helpful communication with them. It's not going to happen overnight, but with a smart plan and focus, the people you'll know in 2014 will create momentum for your professional growth.
Maria Elena Duron is editor-in-chief for the Personal Branding Blog. Duron is the chief engagement officer of buzz2bucks, a word of mouth firm, and the creator of #brandchat – recognized as one of the top 12 business and marketing chats. She is a published expert on branding and marketing in Entrepreneur Magazine. She speaks regularly to small businesses on marketing that's profit driven and gaining more clients in the most budget friendly way.