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This social-science research technique doubles as a networking hack

A savvier, more systematic riff on getting referrals and introductions.

This social-science research technique doubles as a networking hack
[Photo: anyaberkut/iStock]

No one really likes networking events. Once in a while they help you stumble on new connections, but it’s hard to get to know anyone in such a forced environment, and you’re totally dependent on the luck of the draw when it comes to the people you actually bump into. So here’s a better way to build up your network of contacts.

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Take a cue from research scientists

When psychologists and social scientists want to study a specialized population, they often find some members of that community and then have them introduce other members of the same community to the study.

For example, a researcher who wants to study alcoholics in recovery may find it hard to recruit participants; addiction is a sensitive subject and not everyone wants to talk to a stranger with a proverbial (or literal) clipboard. But if one person agrees to participate, they might be willing to reach out to other members of their recovery community and engage them, too. This technique is called “snowballing,” since it enlarges a contact network bit by bit, like a snowball rolling down a hill.

You can build up your network of professional contacts the same way. When you’re meeting with people, make it a habit to offer to connect people you’re meeting with to others who share their interests. At the same time, ask if there are other people they know that you ought to meet. Most of us already do this. The trick is to keep your antennae out for folks in the specific role or industry you’re most interested with; that person can be your access point to an entire community you don’t have access to yet. They’re the start of your snowball.

And it’s that person’s introductions that are really valuable–probably more valuable than just asking your existing contacts, “Hey do you know anyone in [industry]?” Instead of starting wide (everyone you know in every field) and trying to go deep from there (anyone they know in a specific field), you start narrow and go much deeper.


Related: This common piece of networking advice is absolute garbage


Many times, the people you most need to speak to are hard to get time with. They’re not necessarily showing up to networking events. And if you cold-call or cold-email them, you’re likely to meet resistance. When a trusted colleague makes an introduction, though, it lowers many of those barriers.

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From there, it’s just about creating a relationship for the long-term. You might be trying to make a sale, get a new job, or get funding for a project or nonprofit. But you generally don’t want to put your big ask up front. Keep thinking like a social scientist, someone who’s here to do research and observe: Get to know this person better. Learn from them. Chances are this will be easier than you think, since the people you’re introduced to within a certain community you’ve already targeted are more likely to share your interests. Once you have those conversations well underway, then ask for advice and talk about your goals–as well as what you have to offer.

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