How to Make Connections in an Industry (When You're Certain You Have None)

The following is a guest post by our intern, Darby Hennessey, a native Portlander and journalism student at the University of Mississippi. 

Launching a job search in a new industry -- one in which you have few contacts --  can feel a lot like being the new kid at school: nobody knows who you are, striking up friendships feels awkward (at best) and, on top of it all, there’s a giant pile of homework to contend with.

It all adds up to a lot of ‘yuck’

But if you really want to break into that sector, you've pretty much got two choices: 

  1. Buck up and find a way to forge new connections, or
  2. Give up

I vote for buck up, every time. 

Building and nurturing industry contacts is extremely helpful – both during your search and once you’ve landed your next gig. Whether it’s via LinkedIn, through a coworker, or a friend-of-a-friend, having someone (or someones) to communicate with, learn from. or enlist for support is critical when you're looking to pivot your career.

So how do you tackle this assignment when you’re switching industries and your list of insider acquaintances and confidants adds up to a big fat zero?  

First and foremost, do not panic. And don't throw up your hands and assume it's hopeless.

Instead, consider leveraging these tools as means to forge valuable connections with people in an industry of interest (or, even your current industry if you've done little to branch out in recent year):

Twitter

Twitter's not just for millennials and celebrities. It’s also an incredibly helpful, interactive site for active job seekers, and all professionals (especially when you're working to build thought leadership.)  

What, specifically, can you do on Twitter?

First, find and follow the leaders in your industry. But don’t stop there. Make sure you retweet their best posts, reply with thoughtful questions, or perhaps even send them a quick direct message to establish contact.

A word of Twitter caution: there is a fine line between “attentive and interested Twitter follower” and “overzealous weirdo.” Don’t be the creeper. Stay on the safe side of the line, sharing your enthusiasm and making your interests clear without ‘over-Twittering.’  

Conferences and Trade Shows

It seems there’s a conference for every industry. (Including ones for ventriloquists, Abraham Lincoln lookalikes and the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas. We checked.)

Bottom line? There’s an amazingly high chance the field you're targeting has at least one annual conference. It probably has several. If you play it right, these events can provide fantastic opportunities for attendees to meet new people -- people who are influencers in the very field you're targeting. 

Your goal at these events? Go to as many sessions or workshops as you can, ask thoughtful questions, and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself as a newbie to the industry. This status may actually work to your advantage, as professionals are usually happy to help out “the new guy” with pointers and introductions. 

LinkedIn (of course)

Assuming you already have a solid LinkedIn profile (and, if not, we can help you remedy that situation), tap into this resource big time when you're working to build out contacts in a new industry.

Join groups related to your areas of career interest. Let your current network know of your interest in changing jobs (if you are in a position to do so). Remember, your existing contacts are a great place to start in order to build new ones. It’s like low-hanging fruit. Tap into the resources you have and build out from there. You’ll likely discover you have current friends and contacts who can put you in touch with others who may be useful in guiding you into your next role. 

Networking Letters

Most often, your friends, family members and professional contacts will be more than willing to support you as you work to meet people in a new industry, and transition your career. But they can't possibly do this if they have no idea what kind of help you need, or what types of people you'd like to meet.

This is where the networking letter comes in -- a friendly, concise letter sent out to your friends and professional contacts that spells out exactly what you want to do (often, even our close friends don’t really know what we do at work all day). In a networking letter, you can share what you want to do, what skills you want to put to use and -- if you know them -- some sample job titles that would align with what you're seeking.

In short, give people a concrete picture of what you're aiming for. And then follow it up with a direct, polite request for an introduction to anyone that they feel might be helpful to you in your search.

(And, of course, end this letter with an offer to return the favor if you may!)

Professional Associations

Just like a club but for adult professionals, a professional association is the perfect place to meet like-minded individuals in your field of interest (or, again, maybe your current field). They also typically provide plenty of opportunities to get involved in a group setting. (Read: Less scary or daunting than a one-on-one setting).

Not only is this a great way to make contacts, it also gives you access to a bunch of local people, which can be super helpful if you hope or plan to stay in our current area. Sure, your brother-in-law in Kansas who works in the field you're trying to break into is a great person to chat with, but local people may be your ticket into a specific organization in your own hometown.

Meetup.com

Urban dwellers, you’re at an advantage here. At Meetup.com, you can find groups (of every flavor) meeting socially, or to discuss specific professional topics. These events tend to be easygoing in nature, which can be really helpful for anyone who may feel intimidated by the full-on professional events (e.g. conferences or association meetings).

Look for Meetups tied in some way to your specific industry or interests, and make an effort to attend and participate. Participating is crucial: you want to appear (right out of the gates) as someone who is passionate, enthusiastic and engaged in whatever field you're eyeing. This will make contacts more likely to remember you after the event, and (with luck) go out of their way to help you break into the field.

The Bottom Line

Wherever you are at professionally, and wherever you are attempting to go, the bottom line is this -- Fortune favors the bold. And, yes. It's often not what you know, it's who you know. This is not a platitude in many cases.

Given this, it will truly benefit you to go about establishing new connections in a relatively fearless, extroverted manner (even if you're a textbook introvert). Find a way that works for you, of course. But find a way. Job search is not the time to be shy and hold back with your networking. 

The good news? For every person who ignores you, you'll likely have at least three who don't. And one of those three? May be the linchpin to your future success.

So what do you have to lose?

 

Photo: Flickr.com Creative Commons (FelixTriller)