How to Build a Real Network (Not a List of Strangers)

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In this digital age, we are obsessed with networks.  We want to keep in touch with our 3rd grade friends, so we check their Facebook profiles.  When we meet new people, we greedily gather their contact information and store them at LinkedIn.   Even our mothers love networks, if the sheer amount of forwarded spam email is any indication.  Information hording makes us feel like we are part of something bigger, that we have a network of support we can leverage at any time.

Unfortunately, that might not be true.  You could have 1,000 friends and not have even a mediocre network.  Like all relationships, you need to work at maintaining them in order to get anything from them.  If you decide to friend everyone you know and never talk to them, you don’t have a network.  You have a list of strangers.

Networks rely on real communication, the kind of bonds that keep us interested in each others’ lives.  It may seem like a daunting task, but you can engage in real communication every day with your network.  Doing so not only makes you part of the network, but builds relationships over time you can turn to in times of need.

Below are a few examples you can do every day to build your network.  Even devoting ten minutes a day can bring incredible results:

1. Answer Questions

The people in your network ask questions all the time, ranging from “Where can I buy organic ketchup?” to “How do I find jobs in the San Francisco area?” If you have relevant answers, you should reply.  People appreciate any help at all, even if they don’t end up taking your advice.  Answering questions also shows that you care about what other people (and aren’t self-absorbed about your own life).

2. Ask Questions

Too many people use status updates as a public “whine board” of all the things going wrong with their life.  Let’s face it: nobody likes a whiner.  On the flip side, most people do like to help others.  Change your problem into a solicitation for advice.  Transforming “I hate my boss!” into “How do I manage a difficult boss?” is the difference between pointless self-misery and a conversations that lead to solutions.

3. Send Personalized Messages

Your friends are not identical clones of each other.  When you communicate only through your status bar, though, you assume all of your friends like the same things equally.  Take a break from updating your status to share personalized messages.  Send your hard rocker friend a line about the new album you bought, or share a funny link with your college roommate that reminds you of freshman year.  These little acts of real communication do not go unnoticed and make for much more interesting, relevant reads for your friends.

4. Offer to Help

Just like you, your friends go through minor and major life changes all the time.  You might notice a friend going through a rough divorce or writing a tough cover letter.  Try to help in these situations.  You may just give advice or physically lend a hand.  Giving away a little of your time and knowledge goes an incredibly long way to building relationships.  In fact, I once got a job offer by sending a quick email to an acquaintance who needed advice on writing.

5. Link People Together

Even if you can’t help your friend, odds are, you know people who can.  If your friend needs a rock climbing coach and you just happen to know one, link them together.  A student from your alumni university may be looking into a career that your classmate pursued.  Linking people together who need each other not only strengthens their networks, but strengthens yours by building stronger professional people in your life.

The more real conversations you start, the more you will be surprised how building a network can help you grow.  Not only that, but you get to really know people in the process, which enriches your life much more than posting about what you had for lunch.

Photo by Luc Legay