Professional networking is an important part of being a designer and working towards a challenging and rewarding career. Unfortunately, most designers are so busy with client work, or trying to find more clients, that networking-related activities are more of an afterthought that get attention whenever the time happens to be available. While networking is critical, it doesn’t have to adsorb huge amounts of time that prevent you from getting other essential tasks completed.
In this article we’ll look at a series of tips and suggestions that are aimed at designers who want to network more successfully, but without committing large amounts of time each day or each week. The idea is to get as much benefit as possible from a reasonable time commitment that can be accommodated by just about any schedule.
1. Organize Your Contacts
Whenever efficiency and minimizing time commitment are the goals, evaluating and improving organization is a great place to start. If you are wasting time trying to find an email address, a phone number, or a name from someone that you met a few months ago, that is a lack of productivity that could be avoided with better organization.
There are any number of ways you can organize your contacts. You can use a program like Outlook or Thunderbird, or you could choose a full-feature CRM like Highrise. How you organize your contacts is less important than the fact that you actually have a method for doing so. Each person is different, and you should consider your own needs work habits in deciding on a solution.
For more, see 12 CRM Options for Freelancers.
2. Take Advantage of Useful Tools and Resources
Aside from organizing, another part of achieving efficiency involves making use of resources that are available to make networking less time consuming and more effective. Particularly when dealing with online networking, there are a number of resources available, some free and some for pay. Two examples that are highly useful for designers are Skype and Buffer. With Skype you can talk to people all over the world to get in touch whenever necessary. Buffer makes it possible to use social networks effectively without spending all day on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. Personally, my usage of Twitter multiplied exponentially after I started using Buffer while still not losing productivity.
Skype and Buffer are certainly not the only options, they are simply two examples. Make an effort to find resources like this that can help you to get more out of your networking efforts while keeping the time requirements low.
3. Set Aside Time in Your Schedule for Networking
Because networking activities tend to get pushed to the back burner in favor of other more urgent tasks, it may be necessary to build blocks in to your schedule in order to find time to network. Simple networking activities won’t require that you give up large amounts of time away from your income-generating work. For example, you could block off an hour to update your LinkedIn profile and look for some new connections, set up a day to meet a contact for lunch, or even to simply read some blog posts and respond in the comments.
Of course, some types of networking activities will require more time (such as traveling to a conference or an event), but just building in small amounts of time in your weekly schedule can make a noticeable difference.
4. Think About Your Career Path
One of the reasons that networking is so important is that it can play a crucial role in career advancement and development. Knowing the right person and being in the right place is just as important as having the right skills. However, in order for your networking efforts to truly be effective in helping you to get the career that you want, you’ll need to think about which direction you want to go with your career.
Networking without a plan may lead to some great opportunities, but networking with a plan will give you a much better chance of getting the results you are looking for. Take some time to think about your future. For example, if you goal is to be a freelance designer, making connections with people who can help you to land more work would be very significant. On the other hand, if you are freelancing with the goal of being hired by an agency, you would be more likely to meet your goals by working towards making some contacts with designers and/or managers from various agencies.
5. Identify Key People
After you have given consideration to the path that you would like to take with your career, you should take some time to identify key people who would be able to have an influence. Once you know who you would like to get to know, make an effort to connect with them in one way or another. If they have a blog, you could start by getting involved in the comments on their posts, linking to their posts and writing your own responses, or you could even contact them about writing for their blog. If you know what groups or professional associations they are involved with, you could make an effort to get involved there as well.
Knowing specifically who you want to connect with will help you spend your time in the right way. Your efforts will lead to better results, as opposed to networking with whoever you happen to come across.
There are a few things that should be pointed out here. First, while identifying your key contacts is a good habit, always keep in mind that networking is a two-way street and simply using them for your own gain is neither ethical nor effective. The most effective way to network is to find ways for mutual benefit, so first you should be looking at how you can help them or what it is you can bring to the table.
Second, keep in mind that if you have identified these people as being key, chances are many other designers like you have done the same. Getting connected to an influential person is not easy because they most likely have a lot of people contacting them on a regular basis, which is all the more reason why you need to know what you have to offer them.
Third, have realistic expectations. Depending on your level of experience, you may want to work on your designing and networking skills for a while before reaching out to those key people that you have identified. It may be more effective to dedicate the time to improving yourself as a designer and building up your network of people who are at comparable places in their careers and work your way towards your key people.
6. Integrate Networking into Your Work
One of the most effective ways to build your network without losing valuable working time is to combine the two activities. The are a number of ways that you could do this. Personally, I stumbled across one method a few years ago without even realizing that it could pay huge dividends. In my situation it was freelance blogging that allowed me to go about my business and build my network at the same time. I started to write for other blogs as a paid contributor because it gave me a way to make some money in addition to designing, but what I found out is that it was an extremely effective way to get to know influential people in the industry. As a paid writer for a number of successful design blogs and publications, I’ve had the privilege of getting to work with some very talented and well-connected people.
Many freelance designers do some work that agencies choose to outsource. Just like the freelance blogging example, this can be a very effective way to build your network without neglecting the income-generating work that you need to do. If you already maintain a blog of your own, one effective method would be to interview other designers and post the interviews to your blog. Most designers are open to accepting interview requests, and it will give you a good opportunity to learn and to build some ties to the other designer while simply producing content for your blog. Regardless of what your approach may be, if you can find ways to strengthen your network while still focusing on your work, you will be well on your way to building the network that you need without much time commitment.
7. Pursue Collaborations
Building on the previous point, collaborative efforts are great for strengthening your network while still staying focused on your primary business objectives. Your collaboration could be the sharing of referrals with someone who offers complimentary services, developing an app with someone you know, starting a multi-author blog, working with someone else to design and develop templates for sale, and the possibilities are endless.
Collaborations are great because they allow people to focus on what they do best and to complement each other’s skills. Additionally, it allows you to build very strong relationships with other professionals that can often lead to bigger and better opportunities. Like point number 6, it also allows you to earn some money and make very productive use of your time while strengthening your network.
8. Maintain Quality Relationships
A strong network is based more on quality of relationships than quantity. Rather than trying to get some contact with every designer out there, make an effort to build a few very strong relationships. Making the most of the connections you have may be more important than dedicating time and effort to making additional connections (of course, this depends on your situation and your existing network).
In order to maximize the connections that you already have, make an effort to stay in touch with the people who seem like they would be the best fit for your network. Find new ways to work together or just get to know more about them. Stronger relationships and connections will be much more likely to lead to something significant than several casual connections.
9. Up the Level
There are a lot of different ways to communicate with others and different levels of networking. This would include things like leaving comments on blogs, responding to forum postings, using IM, tweeting back and forth, email, phone, face-to-face, etc. If you’re looking to get more impact with your networking efforts, take it to the next level. If all of your contact with someone has been done via email, make an effort to get on the phone with that person. If you’ve always spoken on the phone, try to set up a face-to-face meeting. Different levels of communication and networking will produce varying results. Getting to interact with someone on a deeper level can lead to a stronger connection.
Of course, it may not always be feasible to take it to the next level, such as a face-to-face meeting, but try to consider the situation thoroughly. If you are trying to build a strong network while still maintaining an active business that involves plenty of design work you will typically be spending only small amounts of time networking and slowly developing some connections. On the other hand, if there is a convention or conference in your area that you could attend for a day or two, you would miss some time for client work, but you could have a better impact with the time that you allocate for networking.
10. Minimize Meaningless Activities
Since you want to achieve greater efficiency with your networking activities, pay attention to the results that you are getting and dedicate your time to those activities that are producing results. If you are spending an hour every day on social media sites hoping that your Diggs and Stumbles will send enough traffic to someone that they will notice you, most likely you could be more successful with other methods.
What’s meaningless and unproductive for one person may be very effective for someone else, so give it some time and evaluate your own results to make the best decision for yourself. After you have been consistently networking for a while, adjust your strategy and your schedule accordingly so that you are getting the most out of your time.