You probably already know that networking is one of the best ways to improve your career prospects, whether that be finding a new job or just learning about new opportunities at your company or the industry in which you work. Doing it online is also one of the most effective and least invasive ways to make these connections.

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But online networking also presents challenges and traps. While most people have a basic understanding of how it works, many might not know the best ways to go about it digitally. Here are some ways to get the most out of online networking.

Start With Your Inner Circle and Work Outward

Sending messages to every online profile you find not only is going to annoy the crap out of most people you contact, it also wastes your time. Online networking is best approached methodically, beginning with your inner circle of connections and working out from there.

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First, reach out to close friends who might be in a position to offer you a leg up or who might know someone who does, since these are the people who are most likely to help you. Use email and a variety of social-media channels that mix business and pleasure, rather than just ones that are exclusively for professional connections.

But don’t stop there. Once you have worked through your inner circle, see who your friends are connected with and ask for an introduction. Want to work in marketing? Find out who of your friends’ friends works for a top marketing firm and ask about connecting you with them. And don’t forget to look through your email address book — it may prove a rich source of prospects.

Expand Into Other Social Networks

While your regularly used social-media channels are the best place to contact existing connections, you may want to set your sights further afield to find new connections. This includes joining groups related to the industries or organizations you’re interested in or finding social networks that specifically cater to these fields. A huge number of networks are out there, dedicated to everything from publishing to coffee roasting. Seek networks where members of your industry congregate and where a direct message is considered appropriate.

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On all of these platforms, keep your profile updated and professional but friendly. Your posts should be appropriate and relevant, and your photo shouldn’t show anything you wouldn’t want a future boss to see. Remember that social-networking sites aren’t all that different from IRL cliques, each with its own customs and behaviors that newcomers are wise to follow if they want to be accepted. Don’t dive in right away. Instead, understand what these standards are before initiating contact.

As your networking expands into wider circles and your connections becomes more tangential, do not lose the personal and professional tone you had with your initial close contacts when you message people.

Set Goals and Be Clear About What You Want...

Online networking requires endurance, clear short- and long-term goals, and performance tracking. Like training for a race or preparing for a standardized test, networking will be most effective if you set manageable benchmarks and track how close you are to meeting them. For example, plan to reach out to one person a day, setting up an in-person meeting once a week, getting 15 introductions a month, or using the 24/7/30 Method. Sticking to these short-term goals will ensure you are moving steadily toward your endgame.

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Just as you need to set clear goals for yourself, you should also be clear with your contacts about what you are looking for. Don’t be afraid to explicitly state how you hope they can help you. You will find that potential contacts, even strangers, will be more inclined to assist you if you’re clear upfront.

…But Be Flexible

While you do not want to be confusing in what it is you are asking for, you do want to be flexible. Avoid yes-or-no questions that could allow a contact to dismiss your request (“Are their any openings available?”) in favor of more open-ended ones (“I’d love to learn more about what your company is looking for in new hires”).

Likewise, be open to a wide range of potential opportunities that your contact could provide. While a best-case scenario may mean a new job or a promotion, there are many other forms of interaction that could prove valuable: Perhaps there is a freelance position open at their company, or they know someone else who might know of an opportunity. Don’t reject an offer just because it’s not what you expected. By being receptive, there’s a better chance you both will benefit.

It’s a Two-Way Street

Networking is reciprocal, so if you are able to offer someone an introduction or a professional resource, they will be more interested in helping you. Even people who seem much further along in their careers could benefit from the information you can offer as a newcomer to the industry or as someone who has recently been in touch with others. For example, you could invite them to an industry event where someone of professional interest is speaking.

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You could even simply express appreciation and interest in the knowledge that they have. Rather than keeping the attention on yourself, emphasize that you value their advice. But remember that a little flattery goes a long way — don’t lay it on too thick.

Leave the Door Open

Even if a contact doesn’t provide a tip or an opportunity when you contact him or her, leave the door open for contact in the future. If they tell you, “Sorry, I don’t know about any openings like that right now,” politely thank them with something like, “If you do hear about an opportunity, or if you need someone with my skill set, I hope you will keep me in mind.”

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At the same time, remember that networking is a marathon, not a sprint. Even if you reach a given goal (say, landing a new job or moving up in your organization), the connections you make during your outreach could prove valuable for years to come. You should approach every interaction as part of a long-term professional relationship.

Want more help? Relate helps you navigate all sorts of complex work relationships. And Zendesk can make the relationships with your customers less complicated, too. Try it for free.

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Alex is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Zendesk and Studio@Gawker.