If you are new to networking, you may be struggling with where to find places to network. In this small section, I'll suggest six different places to look. But first:
Don't take your friend with you to a networking event.
The reason for this is straightforward. If you go with someone to a networking event you will be strongly tempted to "hang out" with that person when you are there. As a result, you will not be focused on networking with new people and you will also make it more difficult for others to approach you. If you must take someone with you, make sure it is a success buddy and that he or she want to do some serious networking as well.
Now as for places to go:
I just recently joined my local chamber of commerce and I wonder what took me so long. As a small business owner this is a "no brainer". Chambers of Commerce are literally set up to encourage networking for business leaders. Now before you dismiss this idea as too expensive or not a fertile ground for what you want to do, consider this. Firstly, you don't have to be a member to participate in many events put on by the Chamber although this will depend on where you live. In many cases at a minimum you will be allowed to attend one or two events as a non-member so you can learn of the benefits of being a member. So for the price of entry you can get a sense of who the other attendees are and get some great networking opportunities with people who are there for the same reason you are!
Secondly, if you think this isn't a great place for you to network because you are a student, or because you are unemployed or because you are a mail room clerk - think again. Remember the fundamental rule of networking and that is that it is about finding out if you can help someone else. How? Who knows? It might be a simple as connecting a businessman with a good math tutor for his 14 year old son! The point is you won't know what you have to offer them in the way of help until you get to know them and you certainly aren't going to get to know them sitting at home. This is fertile ground for everyone who wants to get ahead!
I am forever amazed at how many not for profit associations exist and how welcoming they are to new people. Some of you may know that in 2009 I held the position of President of the Calgary Association of Professional Coaches. Did you know that this association existed? I didn't until I became a coach! My point here is that if have an interest in military history, basket weaving, French philosophers or just about anything else, chances are there is a group or an association set up to cater to this interest. What an easy place to network since everyone there has a common interest.
Sometimes these associations, clubs and groups can be a bit hard to find even with the internet. The best bet is to visit a store that caters to the group you are interested in or ask at the library if they are aware of the sort of group you want to join. There are also books that contain the names of various clubs and associations that your librarian can help you find. Another thought is to find and ask someone with a similar interest. Undoubtedly they will know of a club or association that you can "check out" or if not, know of someone to ask.
Another great place to find networking opportunities is in the local paper. There are often "shows" and "events" put on by various organizations that create huge networking opportunities. These can be anything from the annual automobile show to leadership series with well known authors etc. Any time there is a group of people getting together to share a passion for something, a great networking opportunity exists. Keep in mind the reason for being at these shows is just the conversation starter - you never really know who you might meet and what you might learn. I went to a wine and cheese party put on by a local museum and met an envoy from the government of Switzerland. How cool was that? Very.
One mistake many people make is that they only associate and network with people who have the same interests that they do. For example, as a coach if I only networked with other coaches I would never get exposure to any potential clients! Instead - I go to coach meetings for a sense of community but I do most of my networking at other events where I potential clients in my niche like to hang out.
So if you are looking for work it is probably not a good idea to limit your networking activities to job fairs. Most people at job fairs are in the same position that you are. It would be much more beneficial for you to network at the fall fund raiser for the American Association of Manufacturing and Production Technologies or something along those lines.
Another great way to "force" yourself into great networking environments is to volunteer. This can be anything from working with the local Parent Teacher Association to helping coordinate the local blood drive or "run for the cure". In any case, these sorts of activities are just loaded with networking opportunities and again, remember the shared reason you are there is the conversation starter. The real value is in getting to know something about the other individual and how you may be able to help them.
The other thing you can do is ask. Ask your neighbours, your friends, your family "Do you know of a club, association or event where I might go to grow my personal network?" Don't discount any suggestions or ideas without considering this. It isn't about you. Your network will really start to take off once you start focusing on the other person.