You buy tutorials, you go to workshops, you read the latest article about gear, try to keep up with industry trends, run social media ads, and do everything else you can think of to create a strong career. But you might not be doing the one thing that could benefit your career the most: in-person networking.
It’s easy to write off in-person networking because it adds so much work to an already full schedule. You’ve got to squeeze events into your calendar (which often includes putting off other work), set aside money in your budget depending on what event you’re attending, make yourself presentable, and then show up and talk to people you don’t know. It’s a hassle, and it’s not always comfortable. To make matters worse, many creatives are introverts by nature, and it takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable enough to physically put yourself and, often your work, in front of another creative. Fear of judgment is a real thing and can be crippling. But if you add in-person networking to your list of “things I’ll do eventually,” then never commit, you could be holding yourself back from the career growth you’ve been longing for.
Networking takes time and effort (and sometimes money), it’s true, but it’s a high-yield investment. Here is a list of a few benefits you can expect from in-person networking.
- Making new friends
- Exposure to new ideas, styles, and techniques
- Meeting potential mentors, clients, or partners
- Possible introduction of your work to a wider audience
- Renewed passion and enthusiasm
- New opportunities
Now, you could argue that many of these benefits can also be derived from the safety of a computer, but you’d be missing one vital component: human beings are interpersonal, social creatures, and physical presence matters. Seeing someone smile matters. Hearing someone laugh and seeing them interact with other people matters. Don’t underestimate the value of a hug or a handshake.
Meeting in person removes the filter of a keyboard that lets you pre-plan your responses and forces the kind of frank interaction that takes a nebulous connection and makes it concrete and personal. Why is that so important to your career? Because if you and I have work similar in style, content and quality, but you have a personal relationship with a potential client, mentor, or partner, who do you think is more likely to get the job, workshop opportunity, or interview?
Before you shout, “nepotism,” let me clear something up: quality work is a given. It's expected. You’d never be considered for a job if the technique wasn’t there, no matter how nice you are. Very rarely will someone score the job with sub-par work. So if quality is a given, then what comes next? You guessed it: relationship. People want to work with someone they like, someone they know they’ll work well with, someone they can trust. In-person networking is the most reliable way to build these kinds of relationships.
And while you can certainly see new and different styles of work online, you can’t always get the thoughts of the artist direct and unedited, and you certainly can’t experience their passion for their work in the same way. Watching someone’s face light up, listening to the joy in their voice when they talk about what inspires them and how they go about creating something can’t be fully replicated by a screen. There is also a spirit that grows in a room full of creatives who are sharing ideas and bouncing thoughts off each other that no social media group can match. Shared experiences tie people together, and can send you home with renewed passion and energy, new ideas, and new direction — often just the kind of jumpstart a career needs.
When you develop relationships with other people in the industry, it’s important to consider a wider audience, not just potential access to a wider audience for your work, which often happens simply through exposure to many people, but the possibility of learning from a wide range of people in the industry who aren’t photographers: makeup artists, hair stylists, retouchers, and also from people who specialize in areas you might not be strong in, like gear, or light, or posing. Sharing ideas and expertise happens much more readily in person than it does online, and someone is more likely to introduce your work to their audience if they know you personally than simply because you’ve exchanged a few words online.
This isn’t to say that you should treat in-person networking as mercenary activity. If you introduce yourself to people with the intention of using them, you’re doing it wrong... and you might be a horrible person. Trust me, people will always discover your intentions over the long run. Instead, go with the intention of meeting people, sharing thoughts and ideas and passion, learning about other people and making legitimate connections. You must also bring value to the relationship. Job references, referrals, collaborations, advice, technique, encouragement, and long-term friendships are born from in-person networking, especially when it’s done with honesty and when the benefits are a welcome side effect of a genuine connection, and not the goal. You must give as good as you get, with the honest goal of being of use to your peers. The good things that happen because of these relationships are the added benefits, not the goal, and they can be very substantial.
I know several people who have built thriving partnerships, gotten great jobs, first magazine covers, and other opportunities that would have either been out of their reach, or taken several more years to appear, because they were willing to put themselves in front of strangers, be valuable, and make honest connections.
In the article Artists Can Become Famous Through Connections and Not Creativity by Jennifer Tallerico, the author discusses a study which found that the artist’s network had a positive correlation with their consequent fame, greater than that of their originality alone. While these artists were producing long before the age of social media, it’s a potent reminder that who you know is also a powerful way to advance your career.
Finally, please remember not to take this advice as encouragement to be a social mercenary. The benefits of networking won’t last if you chase them at the cost of personal relationships. Personal relationship comes first, and benefits follow, because human beings like to help people we personally care about. If you use someone, you’re a jerk, and people will eventually find out. Instead, know that in-person networking is an incredibly valuable tool that lets you connect with people who may choose to be of value to you, in ways that cannot always be quantified, and often cannot be replaced with online relationships.
You may see new job opportunities and you may not, but it's a virtual guarantee that you'll walk away with new ideas, renewed passion, and relationships that springboard your career. I can tell you from personal experience that those friendships are worthwhile and will have the kind of long-term benefits that only honest relationships can produce. But, if you never step away from your computer and shake someone’s hand, you’ll never know.
Lead image shared with permission of Jennifer Tallerico