Getting a personal introduction to a strategic investor or business partner means everything to an entrepreneur. Likewise, executives depend on being able to pick up the phone to get insights into a new market or find the world's greatest marketing guy.
Business life has always been about connections. Business leaders spend decades building and cultivating those relationships. They cherish their networks because they know it's their most valuable asset. And they're not about to do anything stupid to jeopardize them.
Unfortunately, you may be doing just that. If your networking strategy is simply to grow it, then you're likely doing more harm than good. Contrary to popular wisdom, bigger networks are not necessarily better networks. There are pitfalls I see too many of you falling into, these days.
Here are four ways to building and maintaining a network made up of strong, quality relationships that will last forever.
1. Segment your connections.
To market a product successfully, you've got to come up with your bulls-eye target customer base and position to meet their specific needs. That's called market segmentation. If you do it right, you'll differentiate versus the competition, improve profit margins, and win market share. It's all good.
You should do the same thing with your network connections. The only difference is you're sort of the product, so you have to position and market yourself differently for different types of contacts.
For example, some of my connections are top executives, VCs, and clients. That's sort of my bulls-eye. I hardly ever communicate with them and, when I do, I keep it brief and about business opportunities I think might interest or benefit them.
Contrast that with my readers. Of course they want meaningful communication and useful information, but they're also interested in hearing from me more casually and perhaps a bit more frequently. It's a different market with a unique set of needs and wants.
2. Respect contacts as individuals.
These days, it seems that people are feeling more and more pressure to use their connections, to get the most benefit from them, especially on social network sites like LinkedIn. That's fine, except that it's all-too-easy to take that too far and annoy or completely turn off your connections.
Remember that contacts are real relationships with real people. They have their own lives and they're busy. Your urgent needs may mean squat to them. You have to respect that, meaning you can't just send out blanket, generic requests to groups of people and expect anything in return except a lot of pissed off contacts.
When it comes to relationships of any kind, you've got to remember that it's a two way street. You have to give to get. The best way to do that is to always, and I mean always, ask yourself: What's in it for them? It doesn't have to be quid pro quo, but it helps if you do something for others before asking them to do something for you.
And never spam them. Ever.
3. Keep your network current.
Let me tell you something interesting about contacts. They don't age well. They get out of date really, really fast. That's because it's a crazy, complex world so people are constantly adapting to changing conditions. Your best high-tech industry connection today may be making wine tomorrow.
There used to be software programs for keeping your contact lists up to date, but that never worked because nobody wants to respond to an automated request to update their contact information. The truth is you're better off keeping your list of key connections short and staying in touch with them as appropriate.
4. Make your network personal.
Look, success in business is all about relationships. That's how all opportunities arise: between individuals. And there's a big distinction between old school networking and social networking. A personal relationship creates a level of trust that really sets you apart from the virtual hordes.
Every major opportunity in my career--or my personal life, for that matter--has always involved real people in real time. Every single one.
In other words, one personal, face-to-face relationship is worth a thousand online ones. That doesn't mean you shouldn't network with people on LinkedIn or wherever you want to spend your time. Just keep in mind that, if you never really get to know someone, that relationship isn't likely to amount to much. So why bother?