FIND AN EVENT
A number of websites list networking events:
* Meetup includes listings of industry-specific professional networking events.
* Eventbrite lists local events and has a robust search option.
* NetParty focuses on casual settings, with events aimed at young professionals.
* Mediabistro events target marketing, public relations, publishing and other media-related trades.
When former Marine Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Hodd graduates from Fordham University in May, he'll already have a job waiting with a prestigious financial institution. He didn't get the job by flooding job-search websites with résumés or circling ads in the paper. He got it by shaking hands.
"I was raised to believe that networking was unbecoming in a way: seedy guys in suits throwing business cards at each other," Hodd said. "But it hasn't been like that. I just love meeting people."
While in school, Hodd has attended numerous networking events, formal and informal gatherings that bring together professionals in search of mutual benefit. That's where he made the connections that got him a job, and experts say events like these can be a promising starting point for those looking to get into the civilian workforce.
Networking events can take many forms.
* Referral events are organized by groups such as Business Networking International that exist specifically to forge contacts among professionals looking to exchange referrals.
* College alumni groups bring together past graduates for a mix of social and professional purposes.
* Trade groups hold gatherings for industry insiders and can be a great place to meet potential peers within a specific profession.
* Women's groups meet specifically to provide a comfortable space for networking among female professionals.
* Local gatherings may be put on by the chamber of commerce or faith-based groups.
Some of these are highly visible, but it's possible the "right" event is flying below the radar. For veterans just scouting out the landscape, it isn't always easy to know where to look, but a number of tools exist to simplify the search for just the right networking event.
Google can be your best friend here, said Glen Gould, a networking expert and vice president of the Newnan Coweta (Ga.) Chamber of Commerce. A simple search — "business networking meeting Atlanta" — turns up five groups and events, as well as a calendar of opportunities.
Define your outcome
With so many meetings at your fingertips, the real skill lies in finding the right one, said Richard Martin, president of Alcera leadership consulting and author of "Brilliant Maneuvers: How to Use Military Wisdom to Win Business Battles" (Global Professional Publishing, September 2012).
"You need to look at who is attending the events," he said. "Are these potential peers, employers, clients? What's the venue? A casual cocktail affair may not yield the same results as a more formal event."
But what do you want those results to be? That's the real question when it comes to finding the most suitable events.
"Most people go to these trying to sell — either a product or themselves. They are too anxious to show themselves as being valuable," Martin said.
The real value of a networking event lies not in the personal pitch but in the ability to forge lasting ties.
"Most people don't see it as the start of a process, but that's what it should be," Martin said. "If I leave a networking event with one solid introduction, or having met somebody I can start building a relationship with, I am happy — and that's at an event where there might be 100 people."
A networking event typically is not a one-shot deal but rather an investment in a lasting relationship.
"If your goal is to land a big client or the perfect job by attending a meeting, you're probably going to be disappointed," Gould said. "People need to see you a couple of times before they grow comfortable understanding you and what you are seeking."
Tips for success
There are tried and true means to making the most of these opportunities.
"Arrive early, stay late. Be prepared to meet everyone you can, even though most won't be a good fit for you," Gould said. "Put notes on the [business] cards you get, to remind you of what you discussed with them. Then you can follow up with them."
Don't talk too much about yourself. Don't eat messy food or drink too much. Don't show up late.
"You're on a mission here," Gould said. "The mission is to find the right people to put into your network."
Hodd fulfilled that mission largely by being himself: Open, honest, interested in the people he was meeting.
"For me, the first step was in committing to engage with people, just stepping up and making an introduction," he said. "It's about having the conversation, and not just focusing on what this person can do for me. It's about opening a relationship."