Social networking is becoming an increasingly important part of society in general and business in particular. Major corporations are investing in social networking websites and technologies.
However, in an economy and job market where social networks are more important than ever, most of us do not capture the value that we potentially could out of our social and professional networks.
First of all, most people think of networking as temporary and episodic, for example, as a way to get a job or close a deal, instead of as an ongoing process. This is a mistake for many reasons. Networking only when you "have to" means that you will likely be anxious and stressed, and be more focused on what you need from your network than on what you can offer it. A better practice is to network when you don't need anything in particular, and to focus more on what you can do for others than on what they can do for you.
Secondly, people often make the mistake of thinking that the best way to keep in touch with people is to update them about your activities and accomplishments. While this can be helpful at times, a better strategy is to keep track of their activities and accomplishments, for example by using tools like Google News Alerts, which enable you to enter in the names of people, organizations, or topics that you'd like to be automatically notified about. When setting up a news alert, it's helpful to use quotes around search terms so that you only get alerted when exact terms are matched.
Finally, it is important to use "emotional intelligence" in your networking efforts. In order to network successfully, you need to know yourself- for example, knowing when you are in a state of mind that can enable you to network without conveying undue levels stress or anxiety. It's also helpful to know what exactly others can do to help you. It's easier for others to help you if you have a clear idea of the ways in which they can help you.
Social intelligence is also a critical part of successful networking. Knowing what the people in your network care about and value makes it easier for you to be helpful to them, which in turn makes it more likely that they will practice the norm of reciprocity and be helpful to you. It's also important to demonstrate sensitivity and to allow the people in your network to choose if, when and how they provide assistance rather than making demands on them.
For some additional suggestions about how to build and maintain a professional network, see this presentation.