All the networking and business card collecting in the world...

All the networking and business card collecting in the world will go for naught, if there is no follow-up. (Undated) Credit: Handout

So you worked the networking circuit last week, shaking lots of hands and collecting a nice stockpile of business cards.

Now what?

If you're not planning to follow up with key contacts, you might as well not even waste time networking. Follow-up doesn't have to require a lot of effort, but it is critical to the success of your overall networking efforts, say experts.

"Most people drop the ball on follow-up," explains Lucy Rosen, author of "Fast Track Networking: Turning Conversations Into Contacts" (Career Press, $14.99) and chief solutions officer of SmartMarketing Solutions Group Inc., a marketing/public relations firm in Bethpage. "But without follow-up, nothing happens."

In fact, the sooner you follow up, the sooner you'll start building the foundation needed to turn a cold prospect into a hot lead.

Lay the groundwork
To be sure, many people are sheepish about following up with someone they just met, but if you lay the groundwork in your initial interaction, it will make the process that much easier, says Rosen.

"The best way to be able to follow up is to have a valid reason . . . other than I want to sell you something," notes Ivan Misner, co-author of "Networking Like a Pro" (Entrepreneur Press, $21.95) and founder of BNI, an Upland, Calif.-based business networking organization.

Look for opportunities to help someone, he says. For example, if you're speaking with someone at an event and he mentions an issue or challenge he's dealing with, ask for his card and offer to send a helpful article or link.

Have these on file for this very purpose, says Misner.

You can even send the person helpful phone numbers or an invitation to another event or gathering, adds Rosen.

Invite: Invitations are actually a good way to begin another interaction, notes Chi Chi Okezie, author of "Networking Made Simple" (UniBook, $7.97) and owner of SIMPLEnetworking Llc in Atlanta.

It's one of the key follow-up techniques she outlines as part of what she's dubbed "the Fantastic Four."  In  addition to invite, the other three techniques are:

Induct: Reach out to a prospect after an interaction, express a willingness to work together and tell the person you'd like to induct him or her into your networking team (i.e. share resources, referrals, etc.).

Inform: Reach out to people and actively give them information (a book, article, CD etc.).

Inquire: Follow up by actively asking contacts for information (i.e. if they know of any similar events, helpful books, articles, etc.).

If you're going to employ any of these tactics, it's usually best to do so within three days of the initial contact, preferably sooner, Okezie says.

And the way you follow up -- via phone, e-mail or handwritten note -- should be based upon what you're more likely to do consistently, advises Misner.

For Rosen, it's usually sending a handwritten note or making a phone call, she says.

Rich Kruse, a Deer Park-based business consultant and president of ExecuLeaders, a nonprofit business association, often follows up via Facebook and LinkedIn.

After he meets someone, for instance, he'll search Facebook to see if the person is on it. If so, Kruse will send a friend request with a personal message like, ''It was great meeting you at XYZ event and hope to see you soon.''

By being in their social network, you not only get to know the prospects better, but you can also start engaging them in conversations via wall posts, comments, and other methods he says.

"After awhile, we feel like we've known each other for years," says Kruse.