The Harvard Business Review has a good article on how to make networking work for you. Among their tips:
The most universally agreed upon networking tip is this: Offer to help others first, and they will return the favor. “You should always ask new contacts to tell you about a business challenge they are confronting,” says Dr. Ivan Misner, PhD, lead author of Networking Like a Pro: Turning Contacts into Connections, and chairman of global networking organization BNI International. “That way, you might know someone who can help, and that’s the start of a relationship.”
Networking well makes for a brighter future, so Misner advises people to think beyond a current need. “People tend to forget about the importance of long-term credibility because they’re so focused on making an immediate sale,” Misner says. “But with that approach, you only eat what you kill that day.” Focus on becoming known and trusted instead; a long-lasting relationship is more beneficial to both parties.
Lillian Bjorseth, author of Breakthrough Networking: Building Relationships That Last, reminds her clients to share information. “One of my favorite follow-up methods is to send someone a relevant article, photo, anecdote, marketing tip, or other resource via email,” she says. Follow-through on seemingly unimportant promises or casual conversations can be just as integral to business success as delivering a reliable product.
Read more here. The article suggests that trading business cards is relatively meaningless, while cultivating your contacts is where the real action happens. This is essential, useful stuff.