why won’t people answer my networking emails?

A reader writes:

I attend any conventions where I meet with a variety of people and get a lot of business cards. My usual networking M.O. is to follow up with an email asking about themselves, their company, what they are working on and — because I’m trying to move into a new field — if they might be able to point me to some others in their company that specialize in the field that I wish to move into. However, what I’ve noticed is that I rarely receive a response back, and I’m not sure if I should re-email them or not. Recently, I’ve tried to connect with these contacts on LinkedIn, but not everyone has a LinkedIn profile and sometimes I don’t get responses.

Do you have any better suggestions for how to better network at conventions?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Artemesia

    I have known a number of high level executives who are very resentful of newbies who meet them and start asking favors immediately. ‘Networking’ as a very negative reputation among a lot of well placed individuals who are inundated with people who want a piece of them and feel entitled to their advice and expertise and contacts without having been involved with them in any way but to meet them at a conference. I remember one CEO who told me he was chatting with a young man he met at a conference about the presentation they had just heard and within two minutes the guy was asking him for connections to pursue for a job. Imagine you get 100 of these a month. Would you be engaging in chatty email exchanges or just deleting as you go?

    1. rando

      I think of networking as long-term relationship building. If someone is in the same city, I will talk to them at an event and reference when we met before. Or I will see if they are available for coffee or lunch. Coffee and lunches are a great way to learn about someone’s role and company. If someone doesn’t want to meet, I never take it personally.

      People lower than my level ask me out to coffee or lunch, and I’m happy to go and chat when I have time. But I will not write an email about my job to a near-stranger. That is too much of an imposition.

      1. Aphrael

        I wish more people looked at it like that. It seems like so many young people are getting advice that “networking” means “waiting until you already need a bunch of favors, then asking strangers for them.” I’m much more inclined to help someone if their interest doesn’t come across as blatantly manipulative and shallow.

        1. INTP

          Yeah, as young people we are told to “network network network!” and “networking is how you get jobs.”

          Except most entry level employees have little to offer higher level employees so two-sided networking and relationship building can be awkward. Sometimes you might have fresh ideas on something they need or you might have some niche interest in common to chat about, but for the most part, if you aren’t influencing hiring, purchasing, or vendor selection, you don’t have a lot to offer people at other companies. It would probably be better for younger people to focus on building one or two mentoring relationships than trying to “network” in the conventional sense, but we are treated like we are being lazy and shy if we aren’t out there trying to force information and job contacts out of people in the name of “networking.”

      2. Koko

        Yes, there are some gross misconceptions about what networking really is. It’s just thoughtful relationship-building, not some mechanical process of business-card-trading or thinking that if you “know the right person” you’ll find one of those “unadvertised jobs.”

        Build the relationship on mutual interests and with as much mutual benefit as possible. In “Give and Take” Adam Grant found that the people with the densest social networks had a big thing in common: they had built their networks by referring their contacts to each other. “Oh, you’re filming a new documentary project on location in Austin? I just met a PA based in Austin who has a background in documentary filmmaking. Let me introduce you!” Then both filmmaker and PA feel indebted to the connector, who did a solid favor for both of them by helping them find each other. Next time connector needs help with something, filmmaker and PA are eager to repay the favor.

        I call it the Leslie Knope Networking Method. In an early episode of Parks and Rec, there’s an episode where Leslie and Ben are stressed out because they have to ask the fire chief for a big favor that she asks for once a year, and they end up having to ask for a different favor and think they won’t be able to get the big one now. But when Ben meets with the fire chief he easily agrees, and when Ben asks why, the fire chief says, “Leslie Knope gets as many favors as she wants, because she’s the kind of person who users them to help other people.”

        Good networkers leverage their networks to help the people in the network, and end up indirectly benefitting themselves in the process. Poor networkers try to leverage their networks to help only themselves, and end up feeling like “networking doesn’t work.”

        1. Rocky

          All of this.

          I just “networked” with my colleague Reginald this morning. Here’s how it went:

          Reginald sent me an email to say that he’s starting a rice sculpting program at his organization, and did I still have any of the materials from that rice sculpting workshop we took together a while ago? Oh, and will I be at the big Teapot Painting conference next month?

          I responded to that, and said, “Hey, I’m going to be hiring a Teapot Designer really soon. If you know someone good, I’d love recommendations.”

          That’s it. No business cards, no bean-counting about who owes whom a favor, no asking for tons of each other’s time.

        2. INTP

          This letter brought a Parks and Rec scene to my head too – the one where Tom invites 40-something women to a party at a bar, tries to hit on all of them, and wonders why he strikes out.

          If you are focused on just trying to get as many people into your contact list as humanly possible, then you probably aren’t spending enough time on each individual to show them the value in interacting with you. It would be better to to focus on, say, having conversations with 5 people over the course of a conference rather than introducing yourself to 50, and one of those 5 might lead to a strong enough rapport to keep corresponding.

    2. MM

      How should a person engage with higher level contacts? I recently sat next to a CEO on a plane and had a good conversation that he seemed to enjoy as well. There were a few comments I made that he responded, “you are the first person to ask about that” or “I had never thought of that application for this teapot” and at the end of the flight offered me his card saying really, if there is anyway I could help you please let me know. Obviously he is a very busy person and can’t just do me favors, but he seemed sincere in his offer. How can I make the most of this potential contact?

  2. Broadbean

    I am also concerned by the reference to “I attend any conventions…” Not sure if this is a typo for “many” but it suggests a worrying lack of targeting by the OP. Much better to go to a few, relevant conventions and have a small number of meaningful conversations that you can then follow up on.

    1. JMegan

      In addition to which, conferences are expensive! OP doesn’t mention if she is currently employed, or how much of these conference costs are paid by other people, but it sounds to me like a lot of this money is coming out of the OP’s pocket.

      It couldn’t hurt to do a little cost-benefit analysis on this one. Conference fees + OP’s time (plus opportunity cost, what is she *not* doing when she’s at the conference?), divided by number of valuable connections made.

      I know it’s not an exact science, especially if OP doesn’t have a concrete way to put a financial value on her time. And I also know that networking is a bit of a numbers game anyway, and it often involves putting in a huge amount of effort to get one or two worthwhile leads. But even so, it might be worthwhile to do a sort of back-of-the-napkin estimate of how much effort she is putting in, compared to how much benefit she is getting.

  3. Catabodua

    I honestly can’t imagine anyone, at any level of work experience, being interested in sharing “what they are working on” with a person who they spoke to at a conference.

    But even, what if they did? Then what? What’s your follow up?

    “I’m working on finalizing the paint color to be used in next year’s teapot line.”

    “How interesting! Let me know how it goes? Let me know what color you pick?” I mean, perhaps I’m horrible at this sort of thing, but I can’t imagine a meaningful conversation / relationship building from that kind of question when done over email.

    I can see it being something you discuss while you are at the conference together and then, as suggested, sending the person an article “Hey, I thought of you when I saw this article because I remember we discussed this…” would be a more effective way to get me to engage.

    1. AnotherHRPro

      I would NEVER respond to an email from a near stranger asking me what I’m working on. I do, however, frequently email with colleagues where we share ideas and best practices. The key here is to share. Networking can not be one sided. In other words, I just offer something up as well. A recent example of this was me emailing a connection I have at another big corporation regarding our rice sculpture training program. I shared how we were thinking about training for individuals we were developing for the art of rice sculpture and asked how that compared to what they did. Now because of my networking, both my colleague and I have a better understanding of how other similar corporations develop future rice sculpturists .

    2. Koko

      The “What are you working on?” question would turn me off for a different reason.

      It’s that if I have a special project I’m working on, it’s very likely related to innovating or improving our existing processes. Our existing processes are never what I’m working out – those are routine tasks I do day in and day out all the time. What I’m really focused on most of the time is experimenting with ways to make those processes better and more profitable.

      Which means that 1) I’m not yet certain if what I’m doing is even going to work, so I don’t feel comfortable endorsing what I’m doing as necessarily the best idea yet, and 2) even if I have preliminary results back and something is looking good, if what I’ve done is especially innovative or clever, I get into “trade secrets” mentality and I’m hesitant to give away my idea unless there’s a clear benefit to me or my company. Keeping my innovations confidential for a while gives us a competitive advantage.

      I have mentored junior employees before but it was more like going for coffee and giving them the sort of information that everyone at my level has. Tossing out some principals and philosophies that are common in the industry, maybe talking about what subject is new and hot in the field right now, telling them what sort of jobs are good choices to go into X specialty. My own projects though? Those stay confidential until well after they’ve begun earning money, generally until at least a few competitors start doing it too.

    3. Foxtrot

      Is there any good way to ask these questions? I’m graduating soon with a degree in mechanical engineering. The good and bad is that it is a very broad degree -aerospace, to hvac, to cars, to oil…you name it. I’m not totally sure what all my options are. When I meet professionals, I like to ask them what they do and tell them I’m still trying to figure out all of my post graduation options and the best fit. I like to see what people say, but I don’t want to come off as tone deaf.

      1. Catabodua

        I think asking someone what sorts of projects they enjoy, which types of industries have the best mobility, what sorts of projects they are working on that they didn’t expect to based on their university work would be better.

        But overall, I think questions like where do they think the job market will be in 10 years? What types of industries do they think are in decline? Which ones are on the upswing?

        You will probably have to blow some smoke up their ass (my way of saying be a bit of a suck up) and lay it out in a you are so much more knowledgable than I am on these fields, can I ask your opinion on how you view xyz?

  4. INTP

    It sounds like what the OP is proposing is a one-sided exchange. The OP has little to offer these people besides themselves as a job candidate, not being in the industry, and is asking for an entire education in the industry and lists of contacts. It’s like when companies ask me to fill out “How did we do?” surveys and offer me nothing in return – I never fill them out unless they offer a discount code or free bonus stars/miles/points or something. I do agree that shortening the emails, asking for less information in one go (certainly don’t ask them for their other contacts before proving that you aren’t crazy and intrusive!), and making it less time consuming to answer might improve the response rate. However, I would still expect the response rate to remain close to zero no matter what the OP does, because most people are simply not interested in spending time on an exchange that they have little to gain from. ESPECIALLY when it’s work related.

    What might be better is, instead of trying to exchange contact information with as many people as possible, focus on finding one or two people that seem genuinely interested in interacting with you. Only a person who wants to mentor is going to be interested in this sort of exchange, and the easiest way to find a mentor type is to interact with people and see who seems interested in answering your questions, and strike up a rapport BEFORE emailing.

    1. Koko

      I actually had someone sent my way by a mutual contact recently to see if she was a fit for any of the jobs we’re hiring for. The candidate had a good resume and there were even a couple of jobs I thought she would be a potentially strong fit for.

      We exchanged a few emails where I asked for some more information and recommended some openings to her, but I’m embarrassed to say it probably took me a week to get back to her each time she responded to one of my emails. I had it flagged in my work inbox to respond, but “real work” kept cropping up and getting in the way and it was so easy for that to fall to the bottom of my priority list.

      And I actively liked this candidate and thought she could be a good hire for some hard-to-fill mid-level positions! If she had been a college student looking for entry-level work there’s very little chance I would have found the time at all.

  5. Chickaletta

    The time to get to know someone is when you’re talking to them face-to-face at the networking events. That’s the time to figure out if it’s worth pursuing the relationship further. The more you network (and it sounds like OP is), the better you get at reading other people and knowing whether to contact them again. When you’re talking face-to-face and you think you’d like to keep in touch with that person, say so! Towards the end of the conversation say something like, “I’d like to talk more about X. Do you mind if I email you/send you an invitation to meet for coffee?”. Then send the email the next day. But when people send me an email out of the blue, I almost always ignore it. To me, it’s junk mail. And one last tip: make sure that when you’re talking face-to-face that you’re genuinely building a relationship with them. There is one person who keeps emailing me all the time about her services, but when I met her at the event we attended together she acted like she was more interested in her drink and her boyfriend who she brought with her than talking to me. Every time I get an email from her I roll my eyes and delete.

  6. rock'n'roll circus

    Can someone suggest to me how to get more involved in networking in my industry? I was thinking of joining one of those Women’s in Teapots groups that is in my area. (My area being leading area in the Teapot industry) however both of the groups I looked at which have people form all the big teapot makers and seem like legit groups with events all have their events mornings / afternoons on weekdays.

    While I have been in the industry a while, and I am just now in a salaried / exempt position where I am making actual decisions being very independent, I am a sales rep and work only under the sales director vs a big line at my last job, my new job only has 10 days vacation / 5 sick days and I would rather not use it all going to these functions.

    1. AnotherHRPro

      Talk to your manager about going to these events. Spell out how frequent it would be and what you will get out of it (hopefully something more than another job!). Attending an industry type meeting every once in a while to develop skills (normally these types of things share information and do skill building sessions) and network (you could find the next great sales person for your company) doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. In my last position, I attended two separate professional group meetings that each met quarterly so I was out of the office for a few hours every other month or so. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things and helped me keep my finger on what was going on outside of my company.

    2. Koko

      Seconding AHRP – if you are salaried/exempt and your job doesn’t strictly require butt-in-seat, there’s a good chance your manager will let you go without taking PTO because it’s professional development.

      I attend conferences, expos, receptions, and other industry events during work hours with some regularity and never take PTO for any of it. If I don’t get enough work done that day as a result of being out, well, that’s why I’m exempt – because I’ll be working late that night or the next.

      Also the convention is usually that if you learn anything, you share your notes with the rest of the team upon return.

    3. Gwen

      Definitely check with your manager if this can be part of work time. I go to arts group meetings, occasional local coffee connection speeches/meetings, young professionals presentations, etc. as part of my job (being part of a certain number of local groups is actually in my performance goals!). Though the connections & networking are definitely a personal benefit for me, it is also useful to my company to have someone representing them there. It might be the same for you :)

  7. Rocky

    I get fifty-ish work emails each day, and I think I’m actually on the low side for managers in my organization. The ones that ask directly for specific information always come first. The ones that are open-ended like this…not so much. It’s just time management. And I really prefer not to do any open-ended Q&A or brain-picking via email because I find that topics that can take half an hour of email back-and-forthing can often be covered in a 5 or 10-minute phone call.

    Slightly OT, but please please please do not ask your networking contacts to meet up with you on evenings or weekends if you don’t already socialize with them. I make myself as available as I can for informational interviews and such. But three different times now, I’ve told an early-career person that I’d be happy to do an informational interview and given them my availability, only to hear that they’re “too busy with work” to meet up during business hours, and can I meet up for a drink after work or coffee on the weekend. I’m sorry but the answer is no, and the request is a little presumptuous.

  8. Mel

    I networked a lot when I was looking for work (and I was successful at it). To me it sounds like OP is doing things correctly, but just out of order/ too fast.

    Going to conventions is great. But when you meet people you shouldn’t immediately send an email. You need to make sure you actually had a conversation with that person, or, like Chickaletta said, ask if you can email them about getting coffee or lunch. That next meeting, and NOT the first email, is the place to go into details about asking that person about their jobs and telling them about yourself. Only after you establish this report can you ask for contacts. I would not feel comfortable sending anyone my contacts without getting to know that person first.

    Networking takes TONs of patience. It is a very long game, where you develop relationships. It is not a quick fix.

  9. greenbeans

    OP, I have better luck showing up to the same local Meetups and networking groups over and over rather than reaching out to people via email and LinkedIn. You start recognizing people and establishing some rapport, and it shows you’re interested in being *part* of the community, not someone just wanting assistance from the community. Are there any professional groups in this new field that you can join? Can you show up to meetings, or even volunteer to help?

  10. Anonymous Educator

    I’ve never known networking to work this way (email randos and ask them about stuff and to connect you to other people). Any time I connect someone with someone else, I’m usually to some extent vouching for the person I’m connecting. I may not have worked with that person for long, but I have worked with that person in some capacity (mutual volunteer work, planning a dinner, catsitting, actual co-worker, etc.). If you emailed me out of the blue and said “Connect me to the people in your field,” there’s no way I would ever connect you to anybody. Who are you? Why should I help you?

    I think the best way to network is to just be involved and helpful and not to burn any bridges.

  11. stevenz

    My standard practice in these cases is to send a two or three line email expressing thanks for the opportunity to meet, maybe referencing something in our conversation, and saying hope we can stay in touch… whatever. I never *ask* for anything.

    Then you can follow that up later with a hey how are you message.

  12. tg

    I’ve been going to networking events for five years in the field I’m trying to break into, and oftentimes I do see the same people, and slowly some minimal relationships are emerging, but most of the time I struggle to think of what to talk about in follow-ups. Even if it’s just to continue the conversation of that night, I worry that I misremembered something about our conversation and that would be far worse than never sending an email at all, so sometimes I put it off in hopes of getting it right, and never send it.

    In person, I tell people I’m an independent consultant (true, I am happy to do short projects), and they take my card and say thanks. Then I watch them turn around and say to the person who says “I’m looking for full-time work” (which I also really need), “We need someone! Send in your resume.” I hear advice like “don’t tell people you’re looking,” but then I see people who do say that get rewarded with hearing about positions. This is all so confusing.

    In person and in follow-ups, I get asked, “what clients and projects have you had in this field?” and I always stumble through a vague answer about what I can do because I know no one wants to hear the answer “none yet.”

    Anyway, I just feel frustrated that it seems like new people like me in person, and my career coach, friends, and former colleagues tell me I’m great, but I lack an invisible observer to tell me what I’m missing in networking. (Most of the time I’m pretty positive but today I’m struggling.)

  13. Student

    This information is very useful and valuable especially since I am college student and am beginning to network with people in my desired career field. I liked how the author noted on getting straight to the point. I could see how busy workers would not want to email nor answer a bunch of random questions for a student they do not know too well. I have experienced this, when emailing a company, telling them I would like to intern for them in the future and saying what I love about their company; however, to the person receiving my email, he/she didn’t know who I was, nor were they probably going to email back when I didn’t clearly state why I was emailing them and getting straight to the point.

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