We all know we’re supposed to network with other professionals. Most of us occasionally muster as much tact as we can and drag ourselves to a mixer or luncheon. Yet in this era of social media and economic downturn, face-to-face networking is more important than ever. Those who get out from behind their screen, shake hands, pay attention and follow up have the most success of all.

It is tempting to dismiss the advice that we should “always be networking.” If companies have jobs, shouldn’t they announce those opportunities publicly so they get the best possible candidates? Shouldn’t jobseekers be evaluated on the basis of their experience and their ability, not how chummy they are with decision makers? Since we can control the quality of our work, we want to be judged solely on our efforts. Networking feels like the opposite of working; it seems like meeting new people is more about currying favor than enhancing our ability to contribute.

Although this rationale is attractive, networking isn’t just about your own career. It’s also about how you promote the brand of your association.  Networking is the most cost-effective marketing tool you have, because it’s based on the perception others have of you and your work. And although it costs very little to do, the results are priceless. Your reputation reflects on your organization, and vice versa. People are talking about you when you are not there.

The rapid ascent of social networking technologies presents additional challenges. On the one hand, tools like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter enable us to virtually meet people and exchange ideas with incredible speed and convenience. Yet at the same time, these connections seem to require greater focus to maintain. It might be more efficient to announce new programs or current needs to hundreds of followers, but it will likely be more effective to catch up with an old colleague over lunch.

This isn’t a strike against the Internet generation. There’s actually a scientific reason that “pressing the flesh” is so powerful. Psychologists have studied the way we interact in person, and unsurprisingly, it turns out we have a much stronger memory for faces than we do for names, professions or other factoids. Shake hands with someone today, and chances are good they will seem eerily familiar if you spot them at a shopping mall months or even years later. Almost all of us feel that we easily forget names but quickly recognize faces. You may not remember who they are or what was said, but you’re likely to know for the rest of your life that you’ve seen that face before. Leverage that science in your favor.

Networking is more important than ever before. And in an age where marketing is fundamentally important to business, networking remains among the most effective ways to promote who you are and what you do. When you’re networking, you are helping to optimize our social fabric. You’re sharing your dreams and desires with the people most able to understand and help you take flight.

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