"Networking": The Dirty Word

In the newly launched Fast Company Networking Forum, Laura Rich

Why do some people hesitate to embrace networking? How did it earn its seedy reputation? And on the flip side, if you’re an active networker who doesn’t appreciate the stereotype of sweaty palms and business cards, how do you avoid making such an impression?

In doing research for our upcoming book, “The Virtual Handshake”, we also found some resistance to the word networking. When we dug further, we found that this sentiment was primarily concentrated in a couple of key groups: 1) people working for large companies in roles other than sales, marketing, and biz dev, and 2) people in the media. With some thought, it’s easy to see why these groups would have a different perception of networking.

For the first group, formalized networking has very little to do with their day-to-day business. They’re not selling anything, they’re not buying anything, they’re probably not looking for work, and probably not hiring anybody. And regardless of the best ideals of helping others, sharing knowledge, etc., it’s still the expectation of those transactional outcomes that ultimately keeps us coming back for more networking. Without that clear benefit, there’s not a compelling return on the time investment for this group.

For the second group, the media folks, the issue, I believe, is that they are in such high demand. If they go to a networking event, everyone who finds out they’re a journalist/reporter/editor immediately wants to tell them all about what they do to try to get them interested or get them a referral to the right contact. And yet these people often have very little to offer of value to the media person. Sure, media people need contacts — lots of them — but they have a steady supply of people sending in press kits, story pitches, etc. They have big Rolodexes. When they can’t find who they need, they ask around their office, they post on ProfNet, etc. So again, it’s not a need they have, and attending a networking event, they tend to get “used”.

And there are some networking events/groups that contribute to the bad name. Formalized referral programs can be great, a la BNI, but they can also deteriorate to the point that people are just giving other people names to call on, not really giving referrals. (As an aside, try never to just give someone a name to call — make the introduction yourself if possible. It’s far better for all three of you.)

A second thing contributing to the decline of the word “networking” is its hijacking by the network marketing industry. Now, I’m not opposed to network marketing — truly, some of my best friends are network marketers — but it is true that the industry has a negative image to many people. It is also true that the networking marketing industry has adopted the use of the term “networking” to refer specifically to the practice of network marketing. In fact, one of the most popular periodicals in the networking marketing industry is entitled “Networking Times”. Given how many people are prejudicial towards network marketing, this contributes to the negative connotation of the word “networking”.

And a third contributing factor, at least among the tech-savvy, is some backlash against social networking sites. A combination of experimentation and some poor choices by both the sites and their users have created a mild backlash among some people. I find this one especially sad because we have collected so many success stories from people using them effectively, and my educated opinion is that if someone finds social networking sites ineffective, it may be more about their own usage habits and practices, or at least about their exepctations, than about the site itself. Nonetheless, it’s another tick against the word “networking”.

Much of this is based upon prejudice, of course, but it is not entirely unfounded, either. But I see it not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity.

When someone reacts negatively to the word networking, explore a little deeper. “What is your definition of networking?” “What in your experience led you to that belief about networking?” Then define networking for them in your experience, and jokingly ask them if the two of you can agree to use your definition when you’re talking about it with each other. Invite them to the very best face-to-face networking event you go to. Invite them to join your one favorite online network. Ask them if you can be their guide to your world of networking.

Maybe you’ll change their mind — maybe you won’t. But you’ll end up creating a stronger relationship with them either way.

If you’ve got thoughts on this, rather than posting comments here, please come join the conversation at Fast Company.