Building a professional network is a crucial (yet daunting) factor in developing a career. In a competitive job market, it's important to network efficiently and be memorable to your contacts.
Do your homework, starting with the big picture.
Start by reading up on who's who in the industry you're interested in--who's established, who's on the rise, and who's making news. Then, zero-in to research the people that are running those companies and their recruiting departments. Use LinkedIn and Facebook to discover mutual connections and learn more about your targeted contacts. If you don't have any connections but love the company, try "cold calling" with an email that is tailored to one recipient at a time (resist the urge to send mass emails) or try hand-delivering your resume to the reception desk.
See an opportunity and act on it.
You'd be surprised how often you can connect with seemingly inaccessible people. Your chances for a successful connection swell when you're brave enough to reach out earnestly, respectfully, and with a genuine appreciation for the person's work. Email the industry blogger whose work you read daily, set up a coffee meeting with a VP of a company you admire, and introduce yourself to the higher-ups that make an appearance at company parties. People will (usually) appreciate the bold move so long as you maintain professionalism and have a purpose. That is, make sure that before starting any introductory email or informational meeting, you know what you want out of it (a job, a referral, career guidance, etc.) so that no one feels his or her time is wasted.
Be frank about your weaknesses and build a network to strengthen them.
Networking shouldn't be exclusive to the people and topics you already know. It should also help fill in the gaps. First, list your weaknesses: topics you don't understand, processes you don't know, and pieces of your industry pipeline that you haven't been exposed to. Then find your resources: people, workshops, seminars, and mixers that can educate you. Employers will be impressed that you make the extra effort to be educated and you will expand your network in a completely new direction.
Get creative with how you establish and reinforce relationships.
Shake up the tried-and-true LinkedIn introduction and lunch meeting with something refreshing and memorable. If you're at the assistant/intern level, volunteering to babysit or help on moving day is a great way to earn a busy executive's face time and trust outside the office. Already connected? Suggest meeting for breakfast instead of lunch (they'll appreciate having a free lunch hour). Or, try checking out a gallery opening (the refreshments are free and you'll have something else to discuss if the conversation gets stagnate).
People want to work and affiliate with engaging, passionate, and enjoyable people. At the end of the day, networking is about relationship building, not just having 500+ contacts on LinkedIn.