Networking and marketing are skills many people ignore or don't properly develop. However, your ability to earn a consistent and decent income as a contractor will be hurt if you don't make time to do so. You want to be the person people think of when they need an IT professional for their projects. Here are some tips.

Stay Current and Informed. Regularly read industry news in journals, blogs and Web sites. This will allow you to anticipate work needs and trends. You should be well-versed in industry news so you can converse knowledgeably with others who could be a connection to projects down the road. 

Join and Professional Associations and Attend Conferences. Associations are a great way to connect with your peers and to get industry buzz about who is hiring. Conferences often feature guest speakers and discussions to keep you informed. Showing up to meetings tells people you're interested in your industry, and in keeping yourself up-to-date. Often, they provide the chance to give a brief introduction about yourself, what you do, and what you¿re looking for - your very own 30 second commercial.

Follow these few steps:

  1.  Know what you're walking into. Call or e-mail ahead and find out the structure of the meeting. Ask about dress code and what the general flow will be.
  2. Develop a 30-second commercial about yourself so you're not caught off-guard when someone asks who you are or what you do.
  3. Wear a name tag on your right side (so people can easily read it as they shake your hand), make sure you have a firm handshake, and look people in the eye.
  4. If you want to meet a certain panelist, or you notice a person who works for a company you're trying to break into, simply ask for their card. You can e-mail or call the next day. Since you've a connection from the meeting, many people will accept your request.
  5. Don't spend your time huddling in a corner with a friend, or sitting at a table checking your Blackberry. Look interested on the outside, regardless of how you feel on the inside. 

Stay Connected To The Past. Make sure you stay connected with past colleagues.  Send occasional e-mails. Share an interesting blog post or article. Give a job lead.  Let people know what projects you're working on, and what you¿re interested in doing. Schedule regular coffee dates or lunches for face-to-face meetings. These conversations might generate leads and will keep you fresh in people's minds.

Maintain a positive public persona. Your goal is to have people see you as competent, hard-working, and positive. Regardless of the economy, you need to show the work world you¿re confident, upbeat, and can handle change.  If you don't feel it, fake it.

Get To Know Recruiters. Learn who the best recruiters are in your field. Ask them for a face-to-face meeting. Showing that you're willing to take the time for a personal meeting helps you stand out. This is especially useful when you have similar skills and expertise to others in your field. After the meeting, stay connected so your name remains in the front of the recruiter¿s mind when opportunities come their way. Check in on a regular basis.

Become A Known Expert In An Area. Share your expertise through writing and speaking. If you're comfortable speaking in front of groups, look for ways to speak at professional association meetings or industry conferences. If you're less comfortable in the public eye, get your name out by writing articles for industry publications and Web sites, or set up your own blog. 

Use Social Media. Online networking is another way to stay connected and get your name circulating.  Find out which social networking sites are used by people in your industry: Is Linked In preferred? Facebook? Something different? Take the time to create a well-written profile and make sure the message you're sending is one you're proud of. Use the sites to find connections to past employers, old friends, colleagues, vendors, and fellow alumni, and initiate conversations that might generate leads. Also, by participating in relevant discussion groups, you can further brand your name and expertise.

The bottom line: You must build in time to consistently make new connections and keep old ones alive. As a contractor, you need to always have multiple prospects, contacts, and projects in the pipeline. This will help you thrive in a landscape that changes every day.