Extroverts groan good-naturedly at the idea of a networking event. Writers, on the other hand, tend to titter nervously. The problem is, there's no escaping it if you want to be a professional writer.
Networking isn't just about meeting people. On one hand, it's meeting people who might hire you, might have skills you need for a project later, or might pass your information on to people who need your skills. On the other, networking builds your promotional reach. Since word of mouth is still the most proven method of selling books and other services, this reach is a must for any author.
So take a few deep breaths and let's talk networking.
Many people approach networking in a shallow manner. For networking to really work, remember that what you're building is relationships, not a sterile list of who can do what for you.
Today, networking is done both in person and online. As easy as it is to stay in your cave and be a hermit, I recommend starting with the in-person route. Not only will you pull together local connections and support, you'll also see how people react to your approaches in terms of facial expressions and body language, something you can't really do online.
Start by making business cards. They don't have to be fancy, but they should look professional and give a general idea of what you focus on. Also include your name and contact information (at least a phone number and e-mail address).
Once you have basic business cards, looking for writing groups and events in your area. Don't worry, you won't be the only one feeling awkward. But if you suck it up and join some conversations, you'll meet people who'll share their experience. Be sure to share yours as well.
When you feel more comfortable, don't limit yourself to writers. Who are your customers? Who's your audience? If you write for or about businesses, join your local Chamber of Commerce. Write for quilters? Find the local or local-ish quilting scene.
The farther you reach out and spread your net, the more people you'll meet. Some may provide leads for work. Others may keep you in mind if they need help with projects, or are too overloaded to take one. You'll meet people who would be great to write about, people whose skills you may need for one of your projects, and people can help by sharing leads, tips, or just a friendly ear.
Give and ye shall receive. Remember this. Keep focused on what you're trying to achieve: a group of friends and colleagues that help each other.
These days, you can't ignore the online angle if you want to be successful. Building your network in the virtual world means a longer promotional and professional reach, a wider net for catching potential work and project ideas, and a broader relationship with your peers.
Start by setting up a web site. Whether it's a regular site, a blog, or a hybrid between the two is entirely your call. The important thing is that it looks professional and gives people a feeling for who you are, what you do, and how to contact you. This is one of those occasions where, if you're not inclined to learn how to make nice web sites, it's worth hiring someone. Just keep in mind that professional doesn't mean fancy and lots of bling. Focus on the content and a crisp look.
Depending on how far you want to range into personal interests, you could address those in your online presence as well. Some people make separate online identities for their personal/private and professional selves. Whether you do so or not is up to you, but do give the issue thought, as there's no escaping it in social media. When some or all of your personal interests reflect on your area of work they can bring a human face to what might otherwise sound like all dry business postings. But it's easy to stray into boring and banal.
Once you have your online presence, there are three sites you should consider: Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/), Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/), and LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/).
While all three involve social networking, each is different in both purpose and style. Knowing how to make the best of each approach is key to success.
LinkedIn for Business. Start with LinkedIn. Consider this site an extension of your online resume and brochure. Make an account using your real name. Fill in your profile information such as your web site(s), the positions you've held, and your current job.
If you're a freelancer, keep in mind that you can list positions as concurrent. Create a job entry that shows you as self-employed as a freelancer, and make separate entries for prominent positions if it makes sense; for example, you may be a contributing editor whose material regularly appears on a web site.
Be sure to fill out the Summary. Think of it as your cover letter giving people context about who you are and what you do. Also fill in your Specialties, which are a collection of keywords that can help people find you when they run a search. This list should contain the type of work you do (writing, training, etc.) and on what topics (parenting, technology, etc.)
Once you have your profile filled out, add the link to your public LinkedIn profile to your web site and perhaps your e-mail signature, if you wish. Then start adding your connections. You can do so by searching for names, e-mail addresses, or even by importing your e-mail or IM contact lists. Be sure only to connect to people you know or have dealt with. On LinkedIn it's highly frowned upon to request connections with random people you don't know -- which means it's a good idea to include a personal note on how you met if you think someone might not remember you.
Other good steps toward lengthening your reach are to join any LinkedIn Groups that fit your area of expertise and the type of work you do, and to participate in the Q&A area, both asking questions and answering them. Also, go to the Applications list and see if there's anything there you might use to enrich the information you're sharing with your connections. If you travel a lot, for example, you might also sign up for TripIt.com, giving it your travel information and then using the My Travel LinkedIn application to let people see through LinkedIn where you're going to be and when.
Finally, enter a status update. Keep it business-oriented, though that doesn't mean it has to be dry or impersonal. Change your status every couple of weeks at least to give people a feel for what you're working on and to remind them that you exist.
Twitter for Microblogging. Many assume that microblogging involves everyone using 140 characters to share what they had for breakfast and when they're heading off to the bathroom. However, when what you have to say is short and sweet, microblogging is an amazingly useful tool.
As with any other medium, ask yourself what the people you want to reach find interesting. You might post links to your online work, or brief thoughts about something you're working on. Other options include pointing out work from other people you find interesting or relevant or notices about upcoming appearances.
But before you start posting, you need to set up your account, and then click the Find People link and start finding your friends and business colleagues. They'll get an email notification that you're listening and can then follow you in return.
Do yourself a favor and, as you add people to your network, immediately add them to a list (for example, you might create a list called writing peers), so you don't have to go back through later and categorize everyone in a big sweep. If this list is just for you, then make sure it's set to private. However, if it includes writers you enjoy following (for example), you might want to allow the list to be public. That way your readers can discover new writers to follow through you.
Networks typically grow through Twitter by noticing interesting people during discussions. You can click a user's name to see their page. Read their bio and look through their recent posts to see if they're someone worth following. And know that people are doing the same for you as well.
One final Twitter tip. You can set a custom background for your Twitter page. You'll notice that many people use this opportunity to add more information about themselves for people who visit the page. Do a web search on the terms "twitter custom background," and you'll find a number of how-tos on how to create your own.
Facebook for Sharing. While Twitter is focused on posting short status messages, Facebook is a broader social networking tool. Along with status updates, you can also use Facebook to share links, photos, and videos, create and join fan pages, join networks, and more.
Once you create your account, go to the Settings area. Be sure to go through the Account, Privacy, and Application settings to ensure that your information is protected at the level you expect. There are some notorious stories of people getting themselves into embarrassing situations or even losing jobs just from thinking things were private that weren't.
Before you start adding friends, consider your goals for your Facebook account. Are you going to share very personal information such as health issues and potentially embarrassing pictures? Is this what you want your audience to see? It might be, for those who want an intimate relationship with their readers, but those who don't might want to create a professional presence and a separate personal one.
Once you have your friends in place, check out the Facebook applications. There's a massive collection of these for many different purposes, some of which enhance the Facebook experience and some of which are just big time-wasters. An important one is Networked Blogs (http://apps.facebook.com/blognetworks/). This application allows people to easily follow and read your blog posts, and makes sure that each of your blog posts appears on your Facebook page.
Register your blog(s) with this application and then use one of the confirmation options to confirm that you are the owner of the blog. When it comes to sending out invitations for people to follow your blog, try to only send them to people who would be genuinely interested. You don't want a reputation as an annoyance.
If you have work out in the world, such as books, or have a company you work under, you also might want to create a Page. This process isn't particularly clear from the main Facebook page, so go to http://www.facebook.com/help/127563087384058/ to create a Page. You can find the help information here: http://www.facebook.com/help/382987495087424/.
There are three types of Pages: Pages aimed at local people, Pages for a business or organization, and pages for an artist or other "public figure." If you have novels out in the world that have a lot of fans, you may want to create a fan Page for you and your work. It doesn't hurt to look first and see if any already exist. If they do, reach out to those communities; you'll probably make their day.
There's much more out there in the land of Facebook. Unlike Twitter and LinkedIn, Facebook sprawls with possibilities since it's a more general social networking platform. Dive in as shallowly or deeply as you like.
Once you have your network and your online presences, most of your work is done. Now resist the urge to abuse the network you've built. Keep your postings appropriate for the type of social network you're dealing with, don't flood people with posts too often, and try to make each post interesting enough that people pay attention when you add something.
How far you stray outside of strictly work depends on a number of factors. Are you also using these networking methods to talk to your ultimate audience? (Such as the readers of your books?) Or are you talking to your peers? It's possible you're doing both. Just be sure that you don't skew your postings so heavily to one group that the other group leaves.
The great thing about social networking is that if people find what you share interesting, they'll pass it along to their networks. From there, the sharing can cascade, and you'll gain new followers --building your audience -- organically.
These new followers include not just audience, but also peers and potential clients. So not only does building your network promote your work to readers, it increases your chances of being noticed by hirers or those who need additional talent for a project.
Using social networking boosts your name recognition. Just remember that you want to build a good name, not a bad one. Those who care more about having massive lists of friends without building relationships or offering something of interest easily stand out as phony. Carry on conversations, don't post so often that you drown everyone else out, and don't post minutia that will make even your most adoring fans (hi mom!) shut you off rather than being lulled into a coma.
The book The Cluetrain Manifesto (http://www.cluetrain.com/book/index.html) introduced the concept of the Market as a conversation back in 1999. Social networking is very much an example of this idea. If you're not using these tools yet, you're missing out on a great opportunity. It's time to enter the conversation.
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