Networking is a lot like dating—no matter what you’re looking for, one of the first steps is simply putting yourself out there. So you attend every professional gathering you can get an invite to, only to end up with a lot of business cards that don’t do much more than gather dust in your drawer. Before too long, you can’t even remember who would be a good contact for what—or fear the ship has sailed on a potential opportunity because you waited too long to reach out.
So how can you increase the odds that you’ll actually turn a new contact’s email address into a successful working relationship? Enter Katie Mazzocco, productivity coach and small business systems strategist at Full Spectrum Productivity. She’s helped us come up with a four-step power hack that will boost your networking game and make meeting and greeting a much more productive endeavor.
First, you have to tackle the influx of business cards themselves—aka the building blocks that will help you develop your best new career connections. After any big event, binder-clip together all the cards you’ve been gathering so you have them in one place. Afterward, take time to evaluate each one and purge the ones you don’t really need—and it’s okay to be relentless.
"I use two different principles when I purge. The first I call ‘Know, Like, and Trust,’" Mazzocco says. "If we have a great connection, I automatically trust them and I want to know more [about them], so I keep their card. I don’t keep any cards where I don’t feel that connection—unless the person is what I call a ‘center of influence.’" Centers of influence are people like CEOs, company founders, or organizers of networking events—essentially, people who could be a good strategic contact down the road, she adds.
When it comes down to it, "If you keep the card of someone you didn’t really connect with or didn’t care for, you’ll never use it," Mazzocco says.
Once you’ve pared down your pile, find those people on LinkedIn and connect within 24 to 48 hours, Mazzocco suggests. No one likes seeing a surprise LinkedIn request from someone they barely recognize from months ago.
For each event you attend, consider choosing just one to five people to connect with, so that you focus on quality over quantity. "It’s like gold—you refine it by heating it longer, which gets out all the impurities," Mazzocco explains. "The fewer contacts you have and the more you use them, the better they are."
Now that you’ve connected with the keepers from your pile, it’s time to add them to your contact list. Gone are the days of manually entering all the personal details into a clunky spreadsheet—today, there are many high-tech options that make this stage a snap by scanning the cards and turning them into digital contacts.
Mazzocco likes two apps: Scannable by Evernote, which can scan up to 100 cards per hour and offers a premium version that connects directly to your LinkedIn account; or CamCard, which is also known for its accuracy. Both are available on iOS and Android.
Other serious networkers we heard from had their own recommendations for making organizing your contacts more manageable. Nancy Gaines, a business productivity expert and CEO of Gain Advantages, uses Full Contact, which lets you snap a picture of the card and tag the person with the event name. It’s then automatically added to your address book, and you can manage all your social, email, and mobile contacts in one place. And Peggy Duncan, personal productivity expert at SuiteMinute.com, recommends batch scanning all cards into categories by industry, event, or professional business association, for example, so that if you ever need to email a subset of your contacts, you can easily filter them out from your list.
To bring the networking process full circle, the final follow-up stage is crucial. After all, what’s the point of attending events, engaging with people you don’t know and collecting their cards if it all ends there? "Follow-up is definitely important," says Mazzocco. "I have a running list I call the ‘Love List’—people in business whom I love and with whom I want to nurture my relationship. I’m continuously adding to it." Mazzocco estimates she has between 200 to 300 people on her Love List—anyone who expresses interest in working with her, people with whom she believes she’d have good synergy, and so on—and says her list is constantly evolving as her own career progresses.
"I strategically set times each week or each month to reach out to five people," she says. Avoid batching too many messages at once, though, lest you end up with 20 replies and no time to respond in a single afternoon.
It’s also okay to contact them using a variety of methods. "I always mix it up—sometimes I send a Facebook message, sometimes an email, sometimes a note in the mail," Mazzocco says. "It helps me be more personal and [feels] less like I’m an assembly line." The key is to eventually put in face time so you can discuss opportunities—as well as drive home that you’re also available as a resource. "You want to pick choice goals and people who can help you get there."
This article originally appeared on LearnVest and is reprinted with permission.