Most people know by now that networking beats answering job ads, but how you go about it can make all the difference. Here's what to avoid.
By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I've been living on my savings and a small inheritance since I lost my job in late 2010 and, while I've kept busy with some consulting projects and volunteer work, I really need to find a full-time position. I keep hearing that tapping my network of professional contacts is a far better approach than responding to ads and, based on my own experience in my past jobs, I know it's true.
My problem is that I really hesitate to get in touch with former colleagues and other acquaintances I haven't seen or spoken with in years. It seems like an imposition. So far, I've been forcing myself to do it anyway. But when I contact people and ask if they know of anything, all that comes of it is a short, awkward conversation, followed by silence. Is there some secret to networking that I'm missing? — Stumped
Dear Stumped: Are you really asking if people know of "anything"? If so, that may be your first mistake. "There are a lot of misconceptions about what networking really is," says Darrell Gurney, a longtime career coach and author of Never Apply for a Job Again: Break the Rules, Cut the Line, Beat the Rest.
"In my job search workshops, when I ask people to tell me what they think networking is, they usually say, 'Getting in touch with my business contacts to let them know I'm looking for work and asking if they know of anything,'" says Gurney. "The trouble is that, if you ask for 'anything,' you just might get it."
Or, as you've found, you'll get nowhere. Here are five other common networking errors:
1. Leading with your need. "Of course you need a job," says Gurney. "But in this way, networking is a bit like dating. If you seem desperate, people will run the other way." Instead, he recommends taking stock of exactly what kind of work would fascinate and engage you most, and then launching an information-gathering campaign.
"Find ways to approach people that call on their knowledge and expertise, and the conversations you have with them will be far more productive," Gurney says. "'I'm researching this field' has a whole different feel than 'I need a job.'" Not only will you make more connections and learn more about specific openings, but you'll vastly increase your chances of ending up in the right place. Says Gurney, "If you've ever taken a job without enough information about it beforehand, you know all too well why this matters."
2. Relying exclusively on online social networks. There's no question that LinkedIn (LNKD), Facebook, and their ilk can be tremendously useful in a job hunt, but "they're a tool that is only a good first step," Gurney says. "You need to get away from the computer screen and connect with people. Different things happen when you meet with someone in person." They're often very helpful things.
3. Overlooking the people you come across every day. In his job search workshops, Gurney sends people out to lunch with an assignment: "Don't come back until you've engaged in at least three conversations with strangers." Perhaps not surprisingly, this doesn't go over well at first. "Nevertheless, people get job interviews this way," Gurney says. "The guy standing in line next to you at Starbucks could be your next employer's brother-in-law."
And speaking of relatives, Gurney points out that many job seekers overlook their own family members' and close friends' professional networks. "If you know someone very well on a personal level, you may not be aware of how many business connections they have," he says. Include them in your information-gathering efforts, and you could be pleasantly surprised.
4. Defining your talents and interests too narrowly. Just because you've always been, say, a human resources manager doesn't mean your next job will necessarily be in human resources management. "It's a mistake to be out there talking with people without authentic passion about what you'd really like to do next," Gurney notes. "Too often, job hunters don't give themselves permission to go after what they really want."
The early years of a career, he adds, are "just R&D for the second half. You don't have to stick with one thing all your life. You can take what you've learned so far and make a purposeful plan for applying it" -- either in a related field or in some other kind of role where your skills and experience could be even more valuable.
A sixth mistake, which you mention in your question: Hesitating to get in touch with people you haven't seen or spoken with in a while. You're far from alone in this. Jayne Mattson, a senior vice president at executive coaching firm Keystone Associates, says she encounters the same reluctance in many of the job seekers she counsels, who often say things like, "'Everyone's so busy, I've always done things on my own, I hate to bother people,'" she notes. "But your job now is to find a job. Why would you think you could succeed at any new job all on your own?"
Mattson gets her clients past this hurdle by asking them, "If someone you know called to ask for information or guidance related to their job hunt, would you give it to them?" Says Mattson, "Of course the answer is yes. So why would you assume someone you know would not want to help you? Think about it."
Talkback: If you've found a new job by tapping your network, what approach helped you the most? What have you found is least effective? Leave a comment below.
Filed under: Ask Annie, Careers, Contributors
Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001). She also writes the "Executive Inbox" column on New York City entrepreneurs for Crain's New York Business.