980827_72459804I know networking is crucial for everything from finding a new job to making a sale. And sites like Facebook and LinkedIn can make all that networking go a lot faster. But I’m not sold on the idea that they always make it better. For one thing, social networking online is a ton of work. Between responding to notifications, wishing everyone a happy birthday and clicking ignore on ridiculous Facebook application requests, it can feel like I’ve spent all day on social networking and no time of anything that will actually make it worthwhile to have a network.

It’s easy to be lazy about social networking: just ‘forget’ to log in to LinkedIn for a week or two. But if you want the value of the network without all the hassle, maybe there are some better options. In particular, I’m talking about limiting your online networking and focusing on what you can do offline.

Start Slow

I’ve been making a point of connecting with people offline lately. I’ve spent some great lunch hours meeting up with folks that I may see something about online every day but that I almost never see in person. And, as it happens, just sitting down with a sandwich and a contact has been far more valuable than having those same individuals friended on the social networking site of the work. We talked through some of the respective problems we’ve been having with careers and businesses, and even found some worthwhile solutions.

If you’ve moved more towards doing your networking online, it may seem counter-intuitive to try to meet with someone in person. After all, you can shoot off an email to your contact whenever you want. Just the same, though, even one face-to-face meeting can make a huge difference in what topics you think to talk (or write) about. You may have an idea of the current opportunities and issues a person is facing if he updates Twitter or his Facebook status religiously, but it won’t sink in until you actually discuss it. The reverse is true.

Starting to add the occasional real person into your schedule can be difficult. I try to schedule all of my meetings into one day a week in order to improve my productivity on the other four days. I just started adding one meeting — usually at lunch time — where I didn’t have to meet with someone on an existing project. Instead, I pick someone out of my address book that I want to just have a conversation with. It’s as simple as sending an email offering to meet for lunch — almost always, my contact is up for it.

Adding in a meeting a week may be a little much for your schedule, though. Maybe starting with something low level, like a short telephone call, is more your style. I think, though, if you start connecting with people offline, you’ll be inclined to do so even more. If that isn’t true — if you don’t find that face-to-face meeting help you — you can always go back to spending all your time on social networking sites. Just give it a try once or twice before discounting it.

Why Bother?

Between all the social networking sites I’ve ‘had’ to join, the number of contacts I’ve got numbers in the thousands. There’s no way for me to really have a meaningful relationship with each and everyone of them, even online — and there’s definitely no way for me to meet each of them in person. It’s pretty tempting to give up on the whole idea of even trying.

But it’s worth the bother. There are definitely people in my contact lists that I’m willing to make meeting in person a priority. There are even a few that I would be willing to drop what I’m doing just for the chance at a cup of coffee with them. While I don’t particularly like the idea that I’m picking and choosing which of my contacts are really valuable to me, that’s just the approach that is necessary to even start meeting a few in person.

Those face-to-face meetings are worth it, though. When you’re used to working at home and seeing no one, or working in an office and seeing the same handful of people day in and day out, it’s incredibly difficult to get perspective on both your opportunities and your problems. Just bringing in a new viewpoint can shake everything up. And it’s never a bad thing to have an excuse to get away from your desk and have lunch with someone you can hold a conversation with.

A Time And A Place

There’s certainly a time and a place for both online and offline networking. There are plenty of people I never would have met without the ability to connect online — living on different continents no longer prevents making a good connection. But social networking will never replace what you can do in person.

Before you add that new friend on your favorite social network, it’s worth exploring whether you can connect with an existing friend offline. Offer to go out to lunch, or even grab a cup of coffee. Meet up at some event. Just walk away from the computer for a little while and see if you can strengthen your network before you try to play the ‘I have more connections than anyone else’ game.

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