Twenty years ago, I wrote the first edition of The World’s Best Known Marketing Secret. In the book, I introduced several new terms to the business community, specifically in how they applied to ways to grow a business.

One term that seemed to have multiple meanings concerning business growth at the time was “Networking”. For some, this was about going out and collecting a huge database of names, usually by collecting business cards. Others saw networking as the opportunity to get in front of people and be able to personally prospect them for business. There were still others that perceived networking as nothing more than schmoozing and boozing, with no specific intention except to be seen and socialize.

So in an attempt to streamline the myriad of perceptions people had about the concept of “Networking” at that time, and based on my experiences and interactions with others in a wide variety of business and interpersonal situations, I concluded in the book that networking was, in effect:

“The process of developing and using your contacts to increase your business, enhance your knowledge, expand your sphere of influence, or serve your community.”

This definition stood the test of time for many years, until…it didn’t.

Since that my first tackling of the definition of “Networking”, I co-founded an organization called The Referral Institute with two partners, Mike Macedonio and Dawn Lyons. Based on our collective experiences in helping people across the country and around the world build a system for getting Referrals for Life, we realized that the definition of “Networking” needed to evolve – and have a new, updated meaning that would reflect the changing times and business climate.

There were definitely some truths in the original definition that needed to be retained, but there were a couple of words in the definition that just didn’t feel right as we approached the concept of “Networking” in the 21st century.

One of the words we wanted to address was “using.” Today, this sounds rather harsh – even cold. People today tend to find a negative resonance in the concept of “using” someone for personal or professional gain. The other word we took a serious look at is “contacts.” The term has become synonymous with one’s database. And a database is by design very impersonal, practical and – again – rather harsh.

So after many detailed discussions about how to modify the definition around the concept of eliminating the concepts of “using” and “contacts”, we came up with what I feel is a much truer representation of the concept of “Networking”…

“The process of developing and activating your relationships to increase your business, enhance your knowledge, expand your sphere of influence, or serve the community.”

The changes may seem small, but they are significant. When one “activates” relationships, it’s a much more dynamic, interactive, give-and-take type of engagement with others than simply “using” the relationships. Using is a one-way street, while activating is a major two-way highway! It’s just much more powerful, more true to who we are – or need to be – today, if we want to truly succeed at truly engaging with our relationships. People who network in this way show markedly better results than the “users”.

And let’s talk about the paradigm shift from “contacts” to “relationships”! For many years, I’ve talked about the “hunting vs. farming” mentality when it comes to growing a professional network. The “hunters” run from one business event to another, grabbing and passing business cards with very little interaction past that, diligently add the card to their database (read: “contacts) and run out again in search of more to add to the ever-growing list. The bigger the list, the better they’ve “hunted” and – in their often-misguided opinion – the better their “network.”

But let’s think of the farmers – the ones who cultivate steady, growing, genuine and authentic relationships with the people they feel are important enough to include in their network. They have a steady “back and forth” of interactions that not only benefits them; everyone involved is rewarded. Why? Because the time taken to really get to know people enough to make a “relationship” means that when it comes time to make a referral, it’s much easier to call upon them.

So by simply changing a couple of simple words in my original definition, we were able to fine-tune it into what we believe is the true definition of effective networking. Our revised definition is much more congruent with the style of networking we teach every day – and what we know really works.

To be successful with business networking, you should understand that it is really about helping others as a way of growing your business. The people you help are more willing to help you or connect you to people they know. So in essence, networking is part of the process you go through to build your referral-based business. Through networking you can deliver your positive message effectively. Referrals are the end result.

About the Author

Called the “father of modern networking” by CNN, Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author. He is the Founder and Chairman of BNI (, the world’s largest business networking organization. His book, Networking Like a Pro, can be viewed at Dr. Misner is also the Sr. Partner for the Referral Institute (, an international referral training company.

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