From finding a job to meeting your next business partner or new client, you know that there are countless ways that your network can help you when you need it.
The problem is that reaching out, especially out of the blue, can feel awkward and inauthentic. You want to establish regular communication so that any requests are just part of the conversation.
So how do you reach out without feeling sketchy about the whole thing? "The key is if you strive to provide real value in your outreach, people will look forward to hearing from you, every time," says Jenny Powers, founder of the professional women’s networking group, Running With Heels. "Soon enough, they'll be reaching out to you as well and it won't feel like a one way street." Some ideas:
If staying in touch with people is a priority, then set aside 15 minutes a day to do it. The good news is that once this is a regular part of your life, you’ll automatically start looking for reasons to contact people. People will start responding, too. Reaching out feels like less of a chore when there are "Great to hear from you!" emails in your inbox every morning.
Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. are practically made for low-key conversations. Scroll through your contacts, and when you see a post that makes you smile, respond. You probably spend a lot of time on social media anyway. You may as well get something useful out of it.
Going to events has many upsides. First, you may run into acquaintances, and re-establish your rapport. But beyond that, Powers points out that you can always use the occasion of a networking event to invite people you’d like to see. If you’re going to a conference in a different city, get in touch with people who live there to mention you’ll be around. You may wind up with extra coffee dates that are as useful as the event you’re attending.
In the Facebook era, people can get hundreds of birthday messages. But they still matter, and going outside the structures of Facebook makes you stand out. "Everyone loves when the birthday phone rings or when they get a birthday email," says Lauren Berger, CEO and founder on the internship job board InternQueen.com. "This is a great way to stay in touch and just drop them a quick email." This is particularly true for people you’re unlikely to be Facebook friends with (like former bosses).
Google will send you an email when certain words appear in news stories. "I track all of my previous bosses and internship coordinators on Google Alerts," says Berger. "If they get a promotion or their company is in the news—I shoot them a quick congratulations email." LinkedIn can likewise keep you informed of promotions or job changes. These are always good reasons to reach out.
Everyone is busy, so focus on what the other person needs. Introductions? Ideas? Industry news? "Really, anything that says, ‘I’m thinking of you and want to help,’ is a good way to stay in touch with someone," says Powers. Sure, the person may have read the article or study you’re forwarding, but no one can read everything, and since it’s easy to delete an email, it’s the thought that counts. "Once you’ve proven you’re trustworthy and an asset and operate with a generosity of spirit, people will go out of their way to help you and reciprocate whenever they can."
"I always suggest letting your intuition guide you on how often to follow up with people based on the response you receive at the onset," says Powers. "Don't give up if you don’t receive a reply the first time you reach out. People are busy and most of us are inundated with emails so don’t hesitate to follow up on an email. If you don’t hear back after that, move on." There are lots of people to keep in touch with, and if some contacts don’t work out now, that’s fine. Lives and careers are long. Someone who’s too busy now may bend back around in the future.