Networking can be a challenge, especially if you don't know where to start.

Experts say that networking is good for your career. After all, research shows that 70 percent or more of positions are filled through networking. Those who choose to skip it clearly put themselves at a disadvantage.

The problem is that most people dislike networking.

Attending conferences and alumni events is often fraught with stress and pressure, especially if you've recently graduated, moved to a new city, or changed industries. Walking into a room where you know no one can be nerve-wracking! Professionals like you stumble through the crowd, trying to meet “the right people” and collect as many business cards as possible. Then they use those business cards to send a flurry of “nice to meet you” emails, most of which go unanswered. As a result, most professionals are always networking, but never seem to build a functional network.

Is there a way out of the never-ending rounds of meet-and-greets, stacks of business cards, and small talk?

Actually, there is. Here is your map to building a great professional network from scratch.

Start where you are

It's tempting to dismiss your existing network as “useless” or “too small to make a difference,” but doing so would be a big mistake. The truth is that no one has to build a professional network from scratch. Everyone starts with a certain set of people they already know through family, friends, school, part-time work, hobbies, and volunteering.

Even if your current network does not boast anyone with a famous last name, you must begin by treating every single person you know like they are important. It's OK to want to grow your network, but you won't get there by mentally discounting the people you already know. Identify and nurture the connections you have, even if they are few or don't seem immediately relevant to your job search. Ask for introductions in your area of interest. Be specific, be patient, and be grateful.

Leverage alumni organizations

If you've ever worked for a regional or national company, look for alumni organizations in your area. The same goes for school alumni organizations. Attending events like these is a great way to build your professional network. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of walking into a room full of strangers, consider getting involved instead. You might find that volunteering to help coordinate and run an event is a great way to meet the core group of involved professionals. It also gives you a job that, over time, can allow for direct connection to speakers, executives, and decision-makers across a broad spectrum of companies.

Related: The 8 Best Practices for Alumni Networking

Attend trade shows and conferences

Trade shows and conferences can help you stay up to date on industry hot topics and meet new people. Websites like monitor hundreds of conferences across an impressive range of industries and specialty fields. Look for ones in your area of interest, but don't stop there. For example, if you are interested in getting an accounting job in a hospital setting, a conference for medical device manufacturers may be a great source of information and contacts.

As you brace yourself for the crowds, be sure to set the right goal for the day. Remember that one honest, deep, meaningful connection is better than 15 business cards collected in a hurry. Brush up on small talk and icebreakers. Resist the urge to pitch your candidacy immediately after making a new acquaintance. Instead of reiterating your resume, focus on having conversations that you can only have in person.

Look for professional associations, roundtables, and study groups

There are many organizations whose primary purpose is to connect like-minded professionals. Professional associations are a great place to start — many have local and regional chapters with a full calendar of events. Don't limit your search to your industry, however, as there are broader organizations (such as the Ellevate Network for professional women) that transcend technical niches and allow you to broaden your reach. Community and service clubs can also help you form lasting relationships and expand your professional network in a structured environment that isn't about pitching your resume.

Finally, don't forget about roundtables and study groups. These may be less-conventional ways to network, as they are harder to find. However, should an opportunity present itself, these could be effective ways to meet a small group of professionals dedicated to self-improvement.

Conduct informational interviews

Whether you are exploring a new industry or want to get a foot in the door with a company that doesn't currently have an opening for you, informational interviews are a fantastic opportunity to meet decision makers. Although informational interviews don't come with the same performance pressures as the real thing, you should still approach them seriously. Dress as you would for a formal interview. Spend time researching the company. Show up on time, bring great questions, and close the loop by sending a thank-you note. Remember that an informational interview is not the time to pitch your candidacy (though you should have an updated resume with you just in case).

Remember virtual networking, too

LinkedIn is a fantastic resource for connecting with professionals by leapfrogging from the people you already know. Read profiles carefully so that you can tailor your connection requests to be impactful and personal. No one likes to get a boilerplate invitation to connect, so make yours stand out. Keep in mind that many professionals include a direct email address on their profiles, which can make communicating quicker and easier (after all, not everyone checks their LinkedIn profile every day).

A less-commonly known way to connect with key players online is to engage with them via their blogs and Twitter. Begin by identifying thought leaders in the industry, regardless of their geographic location. Read their articles, follow them on Twitter, and spend some time observing how they interact with their audiences. A tweet or an interesting article may well provide a launching pad for you to strike up a conversation that can lead to a meaningful connection over time. Many professionals are initially intimidated to interact with prominent voices in their industry. However, you would be amazed at how generous some thought leaders can be with their time and advice.

Taking your professional network from zero to 60

Whether you relish in meeting new people or dread networking events, growing your professional network is a critical piece of your career puzzle. Remember that there is more than one way to accomplish your goal. From alumni events and conferences to professional associations and informational interviews, try a variety of approaches until you settle on a mix that's both comfortable and effective. Doing outreach will probably feel like a stretch, especially if you are naturally reserved, but the effort is well worth it.

Just remember: No matter which path you choose, be thoughtful in how you pursue it. Networking doesn't have to have the sleazy feel of one professional using another to get ahead. In fact, the icky factor is often the side effect of professionals being in a hurry to deliver their pitch or value proposition as soon as they have someone's attention. Instead of rushing in, choose to focus on getting to know the other person so you can understand how you can be of service to him or her. If there is a meaningful connection, commit to staying in touch by putting a monthly reminder on your calendar to send him or her an email, a note, a book, or perhaps meet for coffee. By doing this consistently, you will develop a professional and personal network that's both powerful and lasting.

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