For Melissa Hampton, owner of Minerva Learning Solutions Inc. in Silver Spring, her computer is one of her primary networking tools.
In between other tasks, she looks up contacts in her Outlook database, checks out the job postings on the tech meeting site at www.dcwebwomen.com, then follows up with e-mail every couple of months.
All that contact has paid off for her instructional design firm. Her reputation for hard work, reliability and turning around big projects in a pinch secured her a subcontract with the Department of Homeland Security, she said, when a former partner recommended her.
Job seekers and those new to the workforce hear it all the time: Network, network, network. Meet people, stay in touch. But how to do it?
Those with more experience, including business owners and executives, say that online and in person, networking is a combination of persistence and reputation. Professional organizations are part of it. But word of mouth and informal contacts also count. And while no one wants to talk shop nonstop outside the office, successful networkers know that no venue is off limits.
There are do's and don'ts for modern networking.
For instance, Hampton strives to walk the tightrope between annoying and enthusiastic. "You know, I'm not e-mailing [the same] people every week. I'm polite," she said.
When considering whether to pick up the phone, write a note by hand or send an e-mail, she considers who she is trying to reach.
E-mail is fast and cheap and may be less intrusive than a phone call. But with the proliferation of spam, e-mail can sour potential clients. And many people are too busy to read unsolicited e-mail.
"It's just too easy for them to delete or skip over and move on," said Amy DeLouise, president and chief executive of Take Aim Media, a Silver Spring small-business communications and entertainment company. "Snail mail has the virtue of being in front of someone for longer -- maybe sitting on [a] desk where your logo sinks in for a few days -- and then [the recipient] can take a quick look at it whenever they have a second and even pass it on to another person."
As useful as technology can be in networking, face-to-face contact still has a place. For instance, Genevieve Schroeder, president of Technology Transformations in Chevy Chase, lauds an old-fashioned networking savior -- golf. "Being able to play a respectable game of golf, for four or five hours, can legitimize a woman with men," said Schroeder, an avid golfer whose company helps larger firms manage their telecommunications expenses.
Networking organizations, including local economic development agencies and chambers of commerce, work for those who show up regularly to specialized events and roundtables. Michelle Boggs, chief executive of McKinley Marketing Partners in Alexandria, said the Women Presidents' Educational Organization, a regional affiliate of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, introduced her marketing temp company to dozens of major corporations, such as J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch.
"They make the introduction and we run with it," Boggs said.
And there are plenty of other groups to choose from. The Washington area is home to 5,367 associations, the largest concentration of such groups nationwide. It's also a magnet for the meetings these groups hold, providing another networking outlet.
But networking doesn't end when a conference or golf game ends. DeLouise recommends thinking of it as a chain of events, rather than one tactic. "Everything is interconnected," she said. "It's not just one contact or one business card that makes something happen."
DeLouise's current project, "Dynamotion," a nutrition and exercise TV show for kids, has been years in the making. Once, she was at a National Association of Television Program Executives event in Las Vegas where she pitched the idea to a vice president of a Northern Virginia media company. He wasn't interested at the time, but he was happy to meet a fellow Washingtonian far from home.
A year and a half ago, though, when DeLouise called him at his new job at Maryland Public Television, the timing was right. Her persistence, organization and friendliness worked.
Today, DeLouise tries to keep networking in perspective. "I don't just go to a meeting so I can hand out 50 cards and collect 50 cards. . . . Life is more integrated than that," she said, adding that she has met clients through her a cappella singing group.
She said, "I always carry business cards, even in the diaper bag."