Launching a business or keeping one going in these dark economic times takes all your energy. But it's essential to occasionally stop and attend that meeting at the local Chamber of Commerce or hit an association's social hour for a couple of hours. As important as it is to collect names and emails of customers for that marketing campaign, building up your business network is a vital part of any company strategy.

"People associate you with the business -- it's part of the branding process," says Susan Roane, a networking specialist and author of How to Work a Room (Collins). Here are seven ways to successfully network without losing friends and alienating people:

1. Be Your Biggest Cheerleader

With all the sweat and financial equity you've put into your company, you are its biggest advocate. If you don't talk up your business, who will? And for many new businesses, a marketing or publicity budget is minuscule if nonexistent.

Consider every time you tout your company as money well spent in those areas. "You have no choice," warns Roane. "You have to gain visibility and have people know who you are so they can recommend you."

However, be careful of how much you divulge, warns Bonnie Marcus, founder of stationary business Bonnie Marcus & Company. You may run the risk of disclosing too much to a competitor when attending one of these industry networking events. Says Marcus, "Do the necessary research after the event and decide who to follow-up with, rather than divulging too much information when first meeting someone."

2. Put on a Friendly Face

Talk up your company, but also know when to stop. If you're at a gathering of friends, says Martin Lehman of Score New York City, touch on what you're up to and what you're looking for and then drop it. Just be sure to have your business cards handy so if people want to find out more, they know how to reach you.

You don't want to be the person friends and acquaintances flee from when they see you. "You are trying to make friends for your business," adds Lehman.

3. Network With a Purpose

Time is money. So look for organizations, free or paid, that can help you grow your business. Good places to start are the local Chamber of Commerce and Business Networking International. When Marcus started her stationary company, her work hours were between 9 p.m. and midnight, when her three kids were in bed. Networking in person was out of the question. So she tapped into the free Small Business Online Community, powered by Bank of America ( BAC).

"Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I had access to the advice of fellow small business owners as well as the site's expert contributors," says Marcus, who branched out into stylish flip-flops earlier this year. Since connecting with the site, she's learned how to run a successful trade show booth and deal with human resource issues.

4. Don't Underestimate Others

Although talking to people in your industry may make the most use of your limited time, don't be too bashful. Hit on your friends and relatives, of course. But you also never know who your hairdresser or dry cleaner may know.

5. Make the Most of That Personal Touch

Sure, business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo are perfect for increasing your network easily, cheaply and fast. A company today can't survive without some kind of Web presence. But Roane and Lehman caution against relying solely on the Internet to build your network. A one-on-one conversation, in person or by telephone, still resonates. After all, they say, people do business with people they know and trust.

6. Miss Manners Would Approve

Roane says one of her biggest pet peeves is using someone's first name for an introduction when you don't have permission to do so.

7. A Loop Job

Another one of Roane's peeves is being left out of the loop. It is important to follow up with those you've networked with initially. "If I give you a lead and I find out third-hand that you followed it, it shows me that person isn't smart enough to keep me in the loop," says Roane. "You put people in an uncomfortable position if you don't keep them in the loop."

If you have a story idea, email Lan.thestreet@hotmail.com.

Lan Nguyen is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Worth magazine and Star magazine.

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