Have you ever come home from a conference with a fist full of business cards feeling like you aren’t sure what to do next? I have.

It doesn’t take much for the anxiety to start to build. How can you stay in touch? What should you say? Will the person remember you? How often should you communicate so you don’t lose that connection? Questions like these (and more) can plague you, especially when you’re trying to connect with someone you’ve admired for a while, or someone whose work has impacted your life. There’s a lot of pressure to make sure you get it right!

But just a second. Let’s take a deep breath, and a step back. If you really want to make your networking efforts worthwhile, the first thing you need to do is deconstruct your definition of the concept, “networking”. I have found that the more I am able to simplify my approach, the easier it is for me to find my way and engage in really meaningful networking. Now, I’m not saying there is only one way to go about networking, or that my process will work for everyone. The important thing is to think carefully about what you’re doing and why. When I feel stuck or I’m unsure of my next move, I consider the results I am looking to achieve. And for me networking is all about building relationships.

Often people approach networking thinking, “how can this benefit me?” or “who do I need to meet?” and “how can I collaborate with this person?” And of course those are all important questions to answer. However, the approach that I’ve found to be most successful is taking time to lay the groundwork for something bigger first. Running a business can be hard work that is often isolating, so in situations where I’m meeting people for the first time, I prefer to focus on identifying people who I can support and who can support me — especially because the vegan professional community is still developing, which means that finding leaders who share the professional passion of a vegan entrepreneur can be challenging.

But how does it actually work? I have laid out my 5-step process below. This is something that helps me to be consistent and efficient with my networking efforts, and I hope it will give you some ideas on how to develop a successful networking strategy of your own:

Step #1: Find Common Ground
My first step after meeting someone at a conference or other business setting is finding common ground to build on by doing some research. I connect with people on Linkedin, (NOT their personal Facebook profile). It’s appropriate to start with more professional communication channels, so besides LinkedIn I might follow their brand or company on Instagram or join their email list. It’s only fair to take an interest in someone else’s world before you ask them to take an interest in yours.

After doing my research I send an email or message via LinkedIn referencing a shared experience we had at the conference or something I noticed about their business. In the same note, I clearly state why I think we should stay in touch. We are all very busy, so for the relationship to build there has to be a benefit for both parties.

Step #2: Prioritize
Unfortunately, you can’t stay connected with everyone, so I suggest you make two lists. On the first list — your “active” list — choose 5 to 10 people you would like to actively nurture a relationship with. Put everyone else on the second list — your “passive” list. Know that as time passes you might move people from one list to the other, but these two lists will help you to make a good start of prioritizing.

It’s also important to understand that it’s okay if you don’t hit it off with everyone. There is far too much diversity in our vegan community to expect a best friend bond potential with everyone you meet. The key is understanding that the goal of relationship-building isn’t going to be the same with every person. I’ve learned to let relationships grow at their own pace. In some cases, it has taken years for some of my most valuable business relationships to flourish.

Step #3: General Communication
Plan to communicate indirectly with your “active” nurture group every 30 to 60 days, and with your “passive” group every 90 to 120 days. Examples of indirect communication would include actions such as attending a webinar hosted by the target connection, commenting on a blog post, liking a post on social media or purchasing one of their products.

Step #4: Direct Communication
Plan to communicate directly with your active group 2 to 3 times a year, and with your passive group once a year. Examples of direct communication would include sending a personal email, requesting a chat or instant messaging on social media. Direct communications should have a purpose and a focus — you don’t want to just say, “hey, how’s it going?” Instead, these are targeted communications where you might share a success or win in your business, congratulate them on an accomplishment, or share news from the industry that is of common interest. The goal here should always be to build on the mutual spark that you have established.

Step #5: Get Personal
When I travel I make a point of looking through my active nurturing list and emailing or messaging people who live in the city I am visiting to see if they want to meet up. Face-to-face meetings can be a powerful way to connect with and develop those important networking relationships, so be sure to take those opportunities whenever they present themselves!

A nurturing process is a personal thing because what works for you will very much depend on your personality. The process above is what I have learned, over years of trial and error, works for me. I hope it gives you some food for thought and inspiration for reflection and discovery.

TAKE ACTION

Think about your nurturing process. Do you have something formal that you follow? If you don’t, and you think implementing a more formal process would help you stay on track with nurturing your contacts, spend a few minutes to sit down and write out a process you think would work for you, using the above model as a guide if you wish.

This article is part of the Vegan Mainstream Essentials Guide, Networking Know-How Download all the articles in this collection, here:

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