A question that comes up often in my networking seminars is "What's more important: quantity or quality?" You'll always need a certain critical mass to make networking work. With just one person in your network, you'll quickly run out of ways to help each other, defeating the primary objective of networking.

On the other hand, having a thousand business cards of people you barely know doesn't really help either. If they won't pick up the phone when you call, how are they going to help you?

So my answer to that question always is, "You want quantity AND quality."

But how can you get both without turning networking into a full-time job? If you put yourself out there you'll automatically get quantity. That's not hard. But the trick to building quality is to know what to focus on at every stage of networking:

Stage 1: Discovery. When you're just starting to network, you often don't know who your best networking prospects are. While you may have a hypothesis, you should field test your assumptions.

Your focus at this stage should be on "quantity." You want to meet as many different types of people as possible to learn who best to network with based on job function, industry, level of experience, and personality/chemistry. You can make initial connections at events, networking groups, and through referrals, but meeting people one-on-one, getting to know them, and sharing your goals is the only way to find out if you can be quality contacts for each other.

Stage 2: Refinement. At this stage, you might take a short break from adding quantity and focus more on quality by working to develop what you believe are your most promising relationships. Based on your efforts in Stage 1, you'll have a strong foundation of contacts, but it might take some time to see if you can really deliver for each other.

Are you truly able to connect those people to the opportunities they're looking for? And when you've done that, have they performed well? Would you recommend them again? You want someone in your network who is professional, reliable and makes you look good. On the flip side, have they been willing to open up their network to you? And more importantly, do they have the right relationships for your needs?

Your focus here is on follow up that will help you identify your most valuable relationships and their common characteristics. Who can be most helpful to you and those in your network, and vice versa? Work on making connections for them and following up on connections they make for you. You'll start to gather strong evidence about what "quality" means for you.

Stage 3: Mastery. By the time you reach this point, you can choose to take a more laser approach by participating only in activities that allow you to meet your target networking prospects in large numbers. Conferences are a great place for this. Rather than shell out a few dollars here and there to go to lots of little networking events, you may get a higher return for your time and money with one highly targeted mega event.

Another option is to take a leadership role in a networking group or industry association to build visibility with your target. Again, you're looking for high impact opportunities to reach a large quantity of high quality contacts.

You'll also want to allocate time to continue strengthening bonds with those already in your network, especially strategic partners, former clients, former hiring managers, etc. Anyone who has helped you in the past is likely to help you again, especially if you made them look good.

How long you should spend at each stage depends entirely on you. In my case, for example, Stages 1 and 2 each took about a year of roughly 1-2 hours a week going to group meetings, one-on-one meetings, etc.

My goal was to go at a pace where I could fit networking into my schedule without burning out (as an introvert, I have a pretty low threshold), but could steadily progress in perfecting my networking skills and building good quality and quantity of contacts.

Now, even though I spend less time networking than before, I still get great results because I've prioritized how I spend my time. Based on experience, I know what I should say "yes" to, and more importantly, what I can say "no" to.

Mastery in networking is all about being strategic and getting the most out of your efforts. That's what I teach in all of my programs. You'll never have an excuse not to network because you just can't fit it in.

Once you have the right balance of both quantity and quality, you won't have to constantly search for opportunities. They'll find you.

© 2003-2007 Liz Lynch

Author's Bio: 

Liz Lynch is a business networking expert whose products, programs and seminars help entrepreneurs and business professionals get clients, build their business, and reach their goals through networking. If you're ready to start networking smarter, get your free networking tips now at www.NetworkingExcellence.com