Most career experts advise that one of the best steps you can take to ensure your career stays on track - whether you are laid off or not - is to network. In the end, they say, it's often who you know that helps get you a job.
Liz Lynch, executive director of the New York City-based Center for Networking Excellence, says it's understandable, however, that many people feel confused about what type of networking is best for them these days. With online options such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn, many professionals don't know which - if any - they should choose. Or, should they just stick with the face-to-face networking events?
''The way you decide is by going back to your goals. Who are you and who do you want to meet?'' Lynch says.
For example, while LinkedIn can be helpful for professionals looking for a job or wanting to explore their career options, Twitter and Facebook can help build a personal or company brand. Lynch emphasizes that professional networking events that allow people to meet in person are still very valuable, despite the growing use of online networking options.
''Sometimes networking at an event in person is the only way to really get on someone's radar screen,'' Lynch says. ''It's a chance for you to strike up a conversation with someone you may not know.''
''Conversation'' is the word that Lynch stresses when she gives networking tips. She says the last thing you should do is just ''stick a business card in someone's face.''
''Don't try and be so impressive in the first few minutes you meet someone,'' she adds. ''Introduce yourself and then say something like, 'So, what brings you to this conference?' It gets the dialogue going, and maybe you can find out something that you could help this person with.
The big mistake people make in networking, Lynch says, is waiting until it's too late to try and make connections.
''It's like when people know they should eat more vegetables, but they wait until they have a heart attack before they start doing it. It's the same with a career. If you wait until you lose a job or start a new venture - and then you get [networking] religion - then it can be really tough,'' she says.
So, if you've been lax in networking, what's the first step to take? Lynch advises:
* Go slow. ''Don't just send out a mass e-mail or a whole bunch of LinkedIn invitations,'' she says. ''Start connecting one at a time with those people who really know you. You can always start with former co-workers.''
* Be personable. Lynch doesn't use the pre-written invitation provided by LinkedIn, but instead personalizes it by including a short note, something that shows why she wants to connect with the person. ''It may be kind of an insult not to send a personal note if you know the person,'' she says.
* Curb your ego. Whether you use Twitter or speak face-to-face, don't always talk about yourself and what you're doing. Make sure you provide some value to the other person, whether it's answering a question online, providing a valuable link or introducing the person to someone you know who might be a good contact.
* Reinforce online connections. Meeting people through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace can be great, but to really develop a stronger professional bond, try to meet online connections at face-to-face gatherings such as conferences or industry meetings.
* Circulate. At professional events it often can be easier to hang out with people you already know. But you should make it a point to meet at least three new people and engage them in conversation. Look for ways to expand your network online by asking for introductions from others, or by finding a mutual interest to begin a conversation with someone you'd like to get to know.
* ANITA BRUZZESE can be reached c/o Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, VA 22107.