Talking to people you know and making new connections through them is a great way to market yourself or your business. But it has a built-in limitation: it depends on the people you already know. No matter how social you may (or may not) be, there are always going to be a lot more people you don't know.
There's also the question of quality: your friends and acquaintances may be great people personally, but they may not be connected in ways that are helpful to you professionally. It all depends on whether they have similar backgrounds or work experience to yours.
That's where organized networking groups come in. And no, you don't need to be a graduate of a prestigious college (or any college at all, for that matter) to take advantage of them.
Having a college connection does give you a built-in "in" to alumni networking groups. Just Google "alumni networking" plus the name of your college, or sign up for LinkedIn and search for your alma mater, and you can easily find these groups.
But there are plenty of networking groups centered not on colleges but on professions, locales, or other commonalities. Start with your profession. Virtually any profession has societies that provide information and support; their websites often point to networking opportunities.
Are you a yoga instructor who just moved to Boston? Do you want to meet hip young high-tech workers in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn? Chances are, whatever you do and wherever you are, there's a networking group out there that can cater to you.
Then there's the very structured world of Business Networking International, which has chapters in many regions, charges a membership fee, and has strict attendance rules. This kind of group brings together professionals with different backgrounds who might need each others' services or can act as conduits to their own personal networks. The idea is that each person you meet is a doorway to a roomful of other people whom you wouldn't otherwise be able to contact.
So you've signed up to attend a networking event. What should you expect? They vary quite a bit, from big cocktail-party type events in which everyone stands around wearing name tags, to smaller sit-around-a-conference table meetings. The best are those that provide both an opportunity to introduce yourself to the group, and some time to chat informally. In any case, keep these general guidelines in mind:
• Dress as you would for a job interview.
• Bring plenty of business cards.
• Prepare an in-a-nutshell statement of what you do and what you're hoping to get out of the group or session. Unless you're a supremely confident talker, practice your pitch at home first.
• In your statement, give enough detail to provide a clear idea of your skills, experience, and goals; but make it concise enough so you don't drone on and lose concentration, because that's a sure way to lose your audience!
• Listen carefully to others' presentations and to what they say in conversation, and take notes. Just as you're hoping to make contacts and learn useful information, so are they; you may have something of great value to someone else. Karma is good!
• Follow up! If you meet someone who might be able to help you, or vice versa, follow up with a phone call or an email.
Attending these events has the added benefit of getting you out of your routine, out of your office or your home, and into a fresh environment with new people. Meeting just one person — one former stranger — whom you can connect with on some level can make your whole day!