Amongst the sea of blogs, books, and information out there about personal contact networking, I’m going to show a little bit of thought leadership and officially coin the terms “soft networking” and “hard networking” to describe the two radically different forms of networking people seem to be engaged in these days.  In fact, I’m excited to have finally come up with a working label to differentiate these two approaches, since I’ve been preaching to my clients for months that “not all networking is created equal” and that understanding the difference between the hard/soft styles can literally be the thing that makes (or breaks) the success of any given job search.

So what’s the difference, exactly?  Why do I think that it’s so important to differentiate between these two approaches?

Let’s start with the concept of soft networking.  Soft networking, quite frankly, seems to be the form being practiced most often these days by professionals in transition.  It’s roughly equivalent to the idea of “socializing” or “hanging around with people” and equates to getting out of the house and participating in group events and activities, hoping such involvement will lead to useful leads, referrals, or opportunities.  It’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.  It exposes you to lots of new people, as well as new ideas, and can play a vital part of keeping your confidence up and helping you avoid some of the loneliness, isolation, and angst that frequently accompanies the job search process.  The drawback?  It’s largely a passive approach.  It revolves around the assumption that if you hang around enough people, and deliver your “elevator pitch” enough times, referrals will magically materialize, via social osmosis.

The process of hard networking, on the other hand, is much more proactive and agenda-driven.  Most often practiced on a 1:1 basis, versus a group setting, it involves a job hunter a) figuring out exactly what they want help with from the folks around them and then b) directly asking for it.  Hang around a few successful salespeople, politicians, or fundraising professionals for any length of time and you’re guaranteed to witness some “hard networking” in action!  Such folks are usually not afraid to ask for the order — or hit people up for favors — because they’ve learned that if they don’t ask directly for help, and leave things up to chance, they’re likely to leave empty-handed.  And while yes, one can push this technique too far and come across as demanding or aggressive, the truly great networkers I’ve met instinctively know where to draw the line — and are able to project just the right level of assertiveness and persuasiveness to get their needs met, without coming across as overbearing.

What do these techniques look like in actual practice?  Well, let’s take an imaginary person named Bob and plop him down in the middle of a run-of-the-mill networking event, such as a Chamber of Commerce function or the monthly meeting of a professional association.  If Bob enjoys a drink, has some nice chats with people about the “topic du jour” for the event, and simply mentions to a few folks in passing that he’s out of work and looking for a job, he’s pretty much a poster child of soft networking.  He’ll have fun, meet a few nice folks, and may feel like he’s done his “networking” for the day, but the chances of him walking away with a red-hot referral or solid new lead are pretty infinitesimal, at least in my experience.

Let’s pretend for a second, on the other hand, that Bob comes from a sales background.  Or is just more of a natural go-getter at heart.  He’d go to that same meeting, and enjoy the camaraderie and mingling process to a similar extent, but with each person he would meet, the wheels in his brain would be turning.  He’d be thinking to himself “How can this person help me?  How can they propel me closer to my goals?  What can I learn from them that will take me one step closer to being employed again?”  Armed with this mindset, he would then look for an appropriate time to ask for a reasonable favor, such as “Wow, I’ve never met anybody with so much experience in biotech; do most biotech companies even have an IT department, in your experience?” or “Oh, you say you’re in human resources?  Gee, there’s probably nobody in the room more qualified to answer a question that’s been bugging me for weeks, which is whether or not to include hobbies and outside interests on a resume.  What are your thoughts?”

Should the person respond favorably to these opening salvos, and seem genuinely interested in helping you out, you might then crank things up a notch and invite the person to coffee later in the week.  Or you might whip out a sheet of target companies you’re pursuing and say something like “Hey, while I’ve got you here, would you happen to have just a minute to glance at a list of specific companies I compiled the other day?  Based on my research, these organizations are all ones where I think my experience could be a great fit, but I’m trying to get a sense of which ones are more reputable or financially stable than others.  Any chance you’ve heard something good or bad about any of these firms that might help me narrow the list down a bit?”

Nine times out of ten, the person will gladly agree to give your list a quick scan.  Then, like clockwork, they’ll start chirping.  They’ll mention that they’ve heard that two of the places you’ve identified are sweatshops, but that another one is an absolutely great place to work.  Or they might tell you they swear by the products of one of the companies or drive by the organization every day, coming home from work.  Then, before they can help themselves, the priceless object of our desire — the personal referral — will come tumbling out of their mouths.  They’ll say something like “you know, now that I think of it, my neighbor (or cousin…or pet-sitter…or the sister of my podiatrist) works over there…”  At which point you humbly ask “Wow, really?  Is there any possible chance you’d be willing to introduce me to them, just so I can get a little more perspective on the organization?”

Before you know it, Bob #2 is walking out of the meeting with several great new referrals to contact the next day, and is triangulating ever-closer to his goals like a killer shark, while Bob #1 has simply enjoyed a nice dinner on the “rubber chicken” circuit but, alas, is not all that much closer to a new job.

Is your networking more like that of Bob #2 or Bob #1?