This week I’m headed to InsureExpo, a 24 hour conference for North Carolina Insurance Industry professionals. The plan of course is to use this opportunity to network with insurance companies, industry influencers and other agents like myself. There will be keynote speeches and workshops and a trade show. I’m excited about going because I hope to learn some new things and either connect or re-connect with people who can help me in my career.

But who has time for all that?

You can’t get away from your business for one day much less two.

You don’t have the extra funds to pay for business travel.

You don’t have time to grow your network.

Except that you do.

You can truly, sincerely, absolutely grow your network without going to a conference. Sure meeting people in person is still a thing. I highly recommend spending face to face time with mentors, influencers, and other business contacts. However I believe a lot of growing a network can happen without ever leaving your home, office, or workplace.

It’s called social media for a reason. It’s social. And there are people out there you should meet on social media and you can even develop relationships with them. I know because I have almost a dozen or more in my network that I can count on for endorsements, great advice, resource material and support. And I have never seen most of them face to face.

There is a beauty to this distance I have with them – because they bring fresh ideas from other parts of the country plus the added bonus there is little fear of competition even from those who do the same thing I do. However these contacts aren’t all in insurance either – they are digital marketing specialists, motivational speakers, life coaches, fiction authors, and others.

Here’s how I suggest you develop your online network:

1) I looked for people I thought were worth getting to know in my same industry. At first I started on Twitter by searching the hashtag #insurance. I looked for people tweeting good info even if they were retweeting others. In my book people who know how to find good info are just as smart as those who create it themselves. You would want to search based on your business or an aspect of business you need help in (i.e. leadership, management, social media, branding, etc.).

2) If you aren’t on Twitter you can do same thing on LinkedIn – and yes you should be on LinkedIn but I could write a whole blog on why small business owners should be on there even if they aren’t selling to or working with other businesses. In fact I plan to write just such a blog so we’ll skip my pitch about LinkedIn for now and assume you are there so you can connect with people. To connect with someone on LinkedIn you just need to introduce yourself OR if they aren’t “in your network” you will need to ask for an introduction. It isn’t as complicated as it sounds and realistically anyone you are connected to on LinkedIn should feel comfortable making the introduction because you are someone they trust. But more about trust in a second.

3) Once you connect with someone on social media  you should actually make an effort to interact with them. Retweet their tweets. Comment on their blog. Comment on their discussion on LinkedIn groups. DO NOT STALK them but showing up as a follower, supporting their posts, in general is not stalking.

4) Be someone who is worthwhile to know. OK so this is more time-consuming that connecting with someone and interacting. However it is essential to the network process. You should be posting some stuff too. Post a link to an article that helped you. Post a quote that inspires you. Make sure your social media profiles have a good professional picture of you and description of what you do. Yes I think I’ll write a blog about what to put in your profiles soon too, so that’s it on the subject for now.

5) If you are starting to interact with someone on social media and you feel like this is someone worth truly networking with go the next step – email them. If you want to get to know them better you can meet them even if they live hundreds of miles away by suggesting a short Skype chat or Google Hangout. A phone call is an OK substitute, but as I said there is still something to be said for face to face.

6) DO NOT ASK for them to do anything for you when you first start getting to know them.  If this is someone you hope may be a prospective customer its also inappropriate to sell them right now. Just highlight why you want to get to know them better and it is appropriate to let them know what you have to offer them – OTHER than your professional services for hire. Because even if you are a noob in your business you still have a lot to offer in the way of support, shared knowledge and more. Plus you need to get used to the idea of GIVING to others in your network in order to receive.

7) Keep your expectations on medium. Not too high, not too low. Developing a network of people on social media can be awesome because it is more convenient in today’s busy world. However people will be people and disappoint at times. Some people I’ve approached have remained aloof or never showed any real interest in true networking. Keep in mind I also never sought to become best buds with the people who had a gazillion followers – I know they are probably already overrun with connections. I always looked for those with a healthy number of connections (say for instance a thousand on Twitter or 250 on LinkedIn but I’ve connected with those who had far less as well) while avoiding the highest echelon. That being said I consider Cynthia Bazin @TheSmartChic a trusted part of my network and she has over 14k followers on Twitter. She’s completely approachable and really understands how to network. Feel free to connect with her and tell her Tracy sent you:

Not everyone you connect with will become your closest friend. However I have been very lucky to find some wonderful people in my social media journey who I do consider close friends – you can do it too. While I’m busy this week driving to Durham, eating hotel food and making small talk to try and grow my network I’ll be thinking of you in the comfort of your office growing your network too.