Many of you have heard of the old adage, “It’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know.” If it hasn’t already been pounded into your head from your teachers, professors, friends, colleagues, or that random guy on the Sirius XM business channel, I’ll take the mallet and do it myself. In today’s online world, networking has not only become easier, it has become an expectation. If you want to better your chances of getting a job, growing your business, landing a sale, or even finding a steal on some front row football tickets, you had better start living up to this expectation. So much of today’s business success depends on word of mouth referrals. This could be people from your network referring your business to the rest of their network, or a consumer who has done business with you and enjoyed their experience enough to share it with members of their network. They then share it with more people. It’s a domino effect. A powerful one. So powerful that 74% of consumers identify Word-of-Mouth as a key influencer in their purchasing decision and Millennials and Baby Boomers ranked Word-of-Mouth as the #1 influencer in their purchasing decisions about many goods and services. Even with these numbers, 72% of marketers and small business owners still don’t recognize the value of customer referrals. What this says to me is that around 72% of marketers and small business owners most likely aren’t building and leveraging their networks to create an avenue for word-of-mouth referrals to help them grow their business. Where to start building your network? A good place to start is to build up a network of valuable connections. It’s nice to have friends from kindergarten on Facebook, but reminiscing on story time in Ms. Smith’s class only goes so far. In the business world, LinkedIn is becoming a ubiquitous social media platform for absorbing and disseminating valuable content. A place to meet and interact with professionals in similar industries as well as individuals in your target market (If you haven’t had personal interaction with someone you want to connect with, you can find some very useful tips and hints on how to approach someone on LinkedIn here).By having a whopping 280 connections, I have a reach of over 6 million people. Imagine if even 1% of those people saw positive feedback on your business, that’s over 60,000 impressions for free. The benefit doesn’t stop there. You might find that someone in your network has a good relationship with a supplier who can cut your costs in half, or with a marketing veteran who does pro-bono work and would love to help you optimize a website or build a marketing strategy. I don’t know about you, but I get a great feeling of joy when I can help someone out and am quick to offer my services or someone else’s if I see the opportunity. How to leverage your network to grow your business? Now that you have a solid network, you don’t want to go in guns blazing, bragging about your business, asking people to buy your goods or services, seeing who can help you out every step of the way. It’s a delicate balance. I once had a marketing professor who compared social networking with the pompous guy at the party that nobody likes because he only talks about himself and expects people to enjoy his presence; this really resonated with me in my approach to social networking. Share content that is interesting to you; that might be interesting to your network, but that doesn’t necessarily relate to your business. Offer a helping hand when you are able to. Offer an introduction. My professor went on to say that one out of every 10 content broadcasts should promote yourself or your business. It doesn’t have to be exact, but I believe this to be a good ratio. These broadcasts will be more engaging so that more of your contacts will trust you and share your content, and in turn, you are capturing the 74% of consumers who shop by word of mouth. I cannot express enough how important networking has been in my life over the past half-decade. Because of it, I got internships, leadership positions, and jobs in school where I gained invaluable working and practical experience that you can’t find in the classroom. My first professional gig and relative success in sales and marketing is a result of networking. You never know how important the next person you shake hands with is going to be in your life and your career, but if you’re not shaking hands, you’ll never get the opportunity to find out.