For job searching in today’s hotly competitive market, nothing tops networking to build your reputation and expand your centers of influence. Studies have shown that finding job leads through others outranks nearly all other methods, far outperforming the practice of responding to online job ads.

However, the term “networking” throws off many good intentions by job seekers, as they have been led to believe that it is tantamount to asking others for a job. Truly skilled networking, though, is simply a matter of spreading the word about what you do, and asking others if you can be of assistance to them as well.

Think of if as part of your own personal PR campaign to get hired!

 But, you might ask, how can I get started cultivating the network itself? What if I didn’t stay in touch with colleagues throughout the years, or I’m uncomfortable approaching others during my search?

Here are some ways to address the question of where to start with your personal network, and ways to build a strong presence (online and offline) that can facilitate a successful job hunt:

1 – Join professional associations in your chosen field.
If you didn’t maintain membership in industry organizations throughout your career, now’s the time to start. Find organizations that cater to professionals in your field by using a web search with your industry name and the word “association” behind it.

For example, “IT association” turns up scores of membership-based groups that are frequented by and also run by industry leaders. A bonus when using Google is that a master indexed list of ALL associations in your field can also pop up in the search results.

What’s great about associations is that corporate members often like to recruit from the membership ranks, as this represents a solid knowledge base and skilled talent pool from which to source candidates. An added feature is that many will publish job listings—for free—on their websites.

In other words, select some groups that fit your personal career goals, and get your membership up and running.

2 – Take advantage of in-person opportunities where possible.
In-person networking meetings can be a boon to job hunters. When you’re trying to find the best venue for presenting your skills, don’t limit yourself to job support groups, as you may find they’re populated only by those searching for work.

Chamber of Commerce meetings, executive networking forums, and yes, professional association chapter meetings can all be a wealth of new contacts. The best part? You can often connect directly with the recruiters who might be in attendance.

Here is where a quick introduction of your credentials (not just your job title!), followed by a query to others about THEIR activities will serve to ease you into true networking mode, and help others retain key points about your background.

3 – Don’t forget about your alumni association and other sources of connections.
Staying in touch or looking up old colleagues can prove valuable for creating (or re-creating) your network. This is also a great source for building your insider knowledge of a particular industry or company.

Throwing out that alumni association newsletter? Don’t! It may contain data on newly employed contacts, including those making a transferr or promotion to a new leadership role—all hot information for expanding your repertoire of job leads. Call your university to get a database of this information.

You’ll also find that company alumni groups represent one of the hottest trends in online social networking. Go to sites such as LinkedIn to see groups formed around ex-employees of just about every major corporation—and don’t be afraid to create one if it doesn’t already exist.

Remember to carefully word your online networking profile so others can find you AND your expertise. This is one of the best free resources available to job hunters, so make the most of it.

In summary, remember to think of networking as a means by which to spread the word about your stellar qualifications, leadership style, and strengths—instead of just a job searching activity—and you’ll soon be on the insider track to find more career opportunities.