How to Build a Substantive Network

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By Marcelle Yeager

In the technology age, people believe everything is quantity-driven. We often think that if someone has a ton of Facebook friends, it means he or she is popular. Seeing a person with many connections on LinkedIn could mean she is very well-connected. However, the presence of 500-plus connections on LinkedIn and 1,000 Facebook friends can be deceptive. Do those people personally know that many people? It's pretty unlikely.

Having an exorbitant number of connections can make others question whether you really know that many people or are just trying to increase your numbers for show. High numbers aren't going to get you the job you want, but substantive relationships will.What is a substantive relationship?

A substantive connection is one where you have actually spoken to or met the person you're connected to online. A friend of a friend or connection of a connection does not count. It actually requires that you have had some sort of interaction with the person.

How do I develop meaningful connections?

Stop sending the template LinkedIn connection request and template email messages! Send thoughtful notes with LinkedIn requests or emails. People want to know why you want to connect with them, and they don't have the time or inclination to figure it out on their own.

One of the best things you can do is to offer help or expertise immediately. For example, you can write that you'd be more than happy to introduce them to people in your network. If you do this, make sure you stay true to your word when they ask for your help, and do it promptly. This will inspire them to help you again in the future.

Do I have to be introduced by someone I know in my network?

No. You can mention that you found the person through a mutual connection, as this will help explain how you found them. Always be sure to explain why you wish to connect.

What do I say?

People usually feel most comfortable offering advice and speaking about themselves. Are you moving to a new city and looking for advice about how to grow your network there? Did you just graduate and are trying to find out how people progressed in their sales careers?

There are many ways people can guide you. Ask for it. Don't immediately ask for someone to help you get a job at her company or to look at your résumé and give feedback. That's a very forward move that a lot of people won't react kindly to, and they likely don't have the time. Plus, most people won't do that without a personal connection of some kind, which is the whole point of building substantive professional connections.

What are some other ways to grow my network besides in online forums?

Look into professional groups in your area. Toastmasters can help you develop public speaking skills and your professional contacts at the same time. Eventbrite and MeetUp advertise local in-person networking opportunities. Also, don't underestimate the power of social events. You can always create a connection that turns professional if you hit it off with someone.

How can I maintain the relationship effectively?

You should keep in touch with those you consider essential professional connections. Find reasons to reconnect, whether it's to congratulate them on a new job that you found out about in a LinkedIn update or on a personal life event. Maybe it's just a holiday note to say "hello," wish them happy holidays and catch up.

Always respond to emails in a timely manner. The days when people only checked their emails once every few days are over. People are constantly online with their smartphones and tablets, so most assume you've read their emails very soon after they sent them.

Don't wait around for days until you have something great to say. Sometimes all you need to do is thank someone for her help. Try your best to reply to emails within 24 hours. Of course, there are emergencies, sicknesses and vacations that delay response times, but do it as soon as you reasonably can.

Hundreds of connections in an online social network do not translate to a functional professional network. Despite the prevalence of technology, phone and in-person contact still ranks highest. In order to make valuable connections, you must craft messages that resonate with the people you want to meet and make an effort to retain them.

You might wonder: What's the point? If you want the chance at job referrals for hidden or posted job openings, you must have interacted with your connections in a substantive way. Being an online follower is just not enough.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Marcelle holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.
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