I was recently invited by my alma mater, Vanderbilt University, to speak at student orientation for the incoming MBA students. As I thought about what to say, I realized that one of the most important lessons that I had learned since graduating was that you don’t always have to follow conventional wisdom to succeed in life.

For example, I have always revolted (even if it was silent and within my own head) when given the advice to network. I just could never see the point in spending time making lots meaningless connections.

When faced with the prospect of a “networking event” I “should” attend my face would involuntarily go something like this (grimace).

This clearly has me in the minority. That said, my career and my life are interesting and fun. I have never wanted for lack of a meaningless connection.

My advice to those incoming MBA students : Don’t network (it’s relationships that matter).

Don’t network into meaningless relationships with colleagues who bore you – find the people who can make you laugh all night, who light up your mind and light up your heart. Surround yourself with people who make the time fly by.

It is relationships with people that make a successful career and a successful life.

Think about the things that have come along and made a difference in your life. For me, that is always tied to a person. Meeting my husband. My friend John recommending me for a job out of MBA school (we had laughed all night). Writing a recommendation for a friend named Cindy in whom I believed (we had heady debates). It’s always someone I know, really know. Not a meaningless connection.

To tie this back to the high tech world, it seems to me there is a lot of networking that goes on in selling these days. What if we stopped worrying about having tons of “connections” and instead started really listening to what our customers really need? I suspect we would all benefit in myriad ways. Imagine responding to genuine needs of a community vs. self-centered selling based on only the desire to make a profit. True relationship building is part of the first while shallow networking is part of the latter. For this un-networker, one of those surely sounds better.

Quality not quantity.  We’re all familiar with the principle and know it’s a proven discipline in so many aspects of life.  So why should this be any different in the new world of social marketing and PR 2.0.  Well it’s not.  Let’s face it, as good as it may feel having a lot of people “follow” or “like” you and/or your company, what’s the point of having 1,000 followers if only a handful are meaningful contacts?  Numbers for the sake of numbers won’t really yield the results you’re looking for long term.  It’s much more important to focus your time and attention on those who are seen as opinion leaders and influencers based on their knowledge, expertise, experience or notoriety.

A good recipe for “influencing the influencers” is to identify the most relevant people and develop an ongoing dialogue based on quality relations, innovative content and company credibility.

Here are few key tips to help you succeed at reaching your key influencers:

  • Target, target, target – Target a group of people who can offer the most bang for the buck rather than using a shot-gun approach of going after everyone that could be interested in your product or service. Do your homework to see which influencers are most relevant to your company and then build a strategy for maintaining consistent, meaningful dialogue with them.
  • Relationship building – media, blogger and analyst relations is just that.  Relations.  And we all know in human relations, people care when you care about them. When you’re targeting key influencers, it’s crucial to know as much as possible about your targets – their personal and professional backgrounds, online activities (Web site, social media), interests, likes, dislikes, etc. Then engage in meaningful and genuine dialogue through appropriate channels (including social media) – as well as be sure to craft your communications in light of their interests.  You’ll be amazed at the response.
  • Tell your story through the mouth of customers – as much as your relationship with influencers is important, they’d still rather hear your story through the mouth of a customer.   Without doubt customer testimonials can greatly enhance the credibility of your company and result in increased sales and media coverage. When customers talk favorably of your product or service, they send a free, believable and targeted marketing message. Customer endorsements can be used in a variety of marketing mediums: media/analyst outreach, collateral, thought leadership events, social media and/or inclusion on the website. For more tips on leveraging customer testimonials, see reference Tried and True PR Strategies for a Prosperous 2010.
  • Innovative programs: With the amount of online chatter and competition for the attention of key influencers, you can’t afford to be boring or depend on “me too” programs.  Thinking outside the box is absolutely essential and key to getting these influencers on board with your company.  Look for resources that can execute marketing/PR campaigns that go beyond the “cookie cutter” approach to deliver fresh ideas and tactics that will get people to listen and make conversations happen.

It may be 2010, but the simple fact is not much has really changed in terms getting the attention of influential media/bloggers. You need to know who you are targeting and build the relationship based on genuine interest and by providing these influencers with a good story/content that will help them succeed at their job.