Networking is an essential part of enhancing your opportunities. Often, who you know can be just as important as what you know. There are many benefits to actively building and staying involved with a professional network. A network can be used to gain helpful career advice, obtain new business opportunities and get job referrals.

Good networking starts by taking interest in others and their professional achievements. Look for common features, themes and threads between you and others you are trying to connect with. Networking is not just a one-way street. It is most effective when knowledge and information is exchanged to benefit and develop the careers of all parties involved. Even if someone is simply putting in a good word for you, provide them with feedback such as a follow-up email expressing your gratitude and letting them know how their actions helped you.

Do not limit your network to just your professional environment. Your network should consist of anyone you may be affiliated with or have formed a relationship with. This could include anyone from your former college professor to your cousin, to your friend on Facebook. Building a large network of contacts allows you to gain access to individuals within various industries and professions. Utilize your own contacts to ask for referrals from within their network to reach out to professionals within networks you may not be as acquainted with.

The relationships, opportunities and knowledge you can gain from your network are endless. An effective professional network is not built over night. It requires time, thought, and energy, to create and maintain your network, but in the long term can be extremely rewarding to your career.

The following five steps are great ways to help you build your network and land your next opportunity:

  1. Develop a short list of target organizations: Start by targeting a handful of specific companies that have qualities within their organization that you admire. Important factors to consider are the location, reputation and work environments within the organizations.
  2. Utilize online strategies: Connect with individuals within those organizations online. Creating and maintaining a LinkedIn profile is a great way to start online networking. Narrow your search for connections on LinkedIn by the companies you are interested in working with. Request to connect with individuals that previously worked for those targeted organizations as well. They may have referrals for you.
  3. Use your social network: Ask people you see at family, social, community, and business events if they are familiar with the companies that interest you. If so, request introductions and contact information for the individuals that work there.
  4. Educate yourself on the target organizations: Research the company and industry to identify current trends, challenges, key players, and other relevant information. Demonstrate you’re your relevant expertise and knowledge to further your relationship with individuals within the organization.
  5. Say thank you and follow up: Timing is everything. You never know when an opportunity may come up.

As most of us have very busy schedules, sending an occasional follow up email or making an occasional call will help remind others to keep you in mind when those opportunities arise. Be patient, persistent, and active. If you make a solid first impression and keep yourself visible you will continue to grow and benefit from your network.