Everyone talks about the importance of building your professional network and making those key connections early on. However, you aren’t that unemployed college student forcing your business card on every stranger anymore. By now, you’ve built a hefty network of contacts and it’s time to make all those conferences, coffee chats, and LinkedIn invitations count!

Like many people, your network is probably a messy list of contacts ranging from past colleagues to old professors and that DJ you met at a concert in 2014. A network like that is far from professional and does little to help you advance in your career. Let’s face it - it’s time to stop building and start properly maintaining your network so you can reap the rewards.  

Whether your goal is to get promoted, earn more money, have more influence, access information, or uncover a new career path, a well-maintained professional network is a key component to succeed. In fact, 80% of job openings aren’t advertised to the public, and a large part of career advancement is a direct result of one’s professional network. While it may seem daunting, maintaining your professional network is simple and you can start now with these 7 tips.

1. Organize and prioritize connections

The first step to maintaining your professional network is to get your current connections organized. Think about who you want to stay in touch with most and how being connected with them benefits you. Then, group them into categories such as potential clients, influential friends, former classmates, and members of professional associations. By decluttering your network, you get rid of useless connections, making it easier to focus on the important people and add new ones. A great tip is to start a personal document where you list the names, job titles, way you met and contact information of the people you’re keeping in your network.

2. Stay active in your network

Nobody wants to feel like you only talk to them when you need something. In order to ask for favours from your contacts, you need to stay in touch—even when you don’t need anything. Showing you authentically care about someone goes a long way, and it keeps your name top of mind when opportunities come up. Instead of contacting priority people in moments of need, interact with them regularly in a subtle manner, for instance:

  • Send an email asking how they are a couple of times a year
  • Congratulate them on successes with a thoughtful message
  • Take action on news that makes you think of them (send them a relevant article)
  • Schedule a coffee or lunch date every quarter

3. Take advantage of social media

With social media, it’s easier than ever to stay updated on what’s going on in other people’s lives. This tip is especially useful for more introverted people who shy away from social gatherings and interactions. Instead, you can like, comment and share their content or send them a direct message once in a while related to something they posted. While it’s easy to stay digitally connected forever, don’t rely too much on social media. Nothing beats real human connection, so for priority people, it’s best to mix in a phone call or face to face meeting once in a while.

4. Provide value to others

As mentioned in step one, when you’re prioritizing your contacts you should think about how they benefit and help you—your contacts are doing the same to you! Meaningful connections are reciprocal, so finding ways you can be helpful to others is essential for maintaining a network. Don’t bribe them or butter them up right before you ask a favor, you need to provide value over the long term. If you know someone is looking for help or advice, ask them how you can help or offer to do them a favor. Even if you aren’t personally able to help, you can add value:

  • Send them an article, book or video related to their problem
  • Offer to connect them with someone you know that could help
  • Send a short message of encouragement

5. Keep your network informed

There’s a thin line between updating people on your life and bragging. While it’s good to share your professional success, you want to avoid being labeled a braggart. Try to inform others of your successes in a way that benefits them, and express an interest in their lives as well! For example, if you just launched a blog, send a thank you message to your colleague who gave you blogging advice, with a link your first post—this shows gratitude while informing them.

6. Give people space

Just as you shouldn’t force friendships, you can’t force someone to stay connected with you. If connections aren’t mutual, it’s best to drop them and move on. While it’s possible they are busy, it’s also possible they are going through something, or they are simply not interested in keeping you in their network – and that’s okay! Know when to back off, if they don’t respond twice you should stop trying. The last thing you want is to annoy them and appear desperate. If someone is really just busy, let them know you’d enjoy catching up when it’s good for them and leave it at that – this shows them that you respect their schedule.

7. Regroup and audit your contacts

As you progress in life and your career, your network will inevitably shift and contacts you cherished before may not be so important now. You’ll meet new people and the state of your network will be back at square one. The most important part of maintaining your network is... the ongoing maintenance! Every 6 months or so, you should get that document out and perform an audit. Remove contacts who are no longer relevant, add new ones and update people’s information (new job titles, last names, contact info). It’s a good idea to meet face to face with your long term, priority connections. Schedule a dinner, lunch or happy hour to catch up and keep those priority relationships alive.

Conclusion

Keeping in touch with key people makes it simple to ask for favours and take advantage of opportunities over time. The last thing you want is to come off as self-serving or worse—not be remembered by someone you contact. You can avoid that and add value to your career by keeping a well maintained professional network, for the long term.