Managing your online network is critical, whether you’re looking for a job, trying to advance in your career, or you’re starting a business. Think of the Internet as a global talent pool that has more contact information than the White Pages. In fact, 80 percent of available jobs are never even advertised, with more than half of all employees finding their jobs through networking, according to BH Careers International.

Social networks have connected and exposed us to more people than ever before. With all the online friends and followers you’ve accumulated, it’s become increasingly complicated to make sense of your social graph and use it to your advantage. It’s also never been more important to build your contact database, organize it, and then put it to work for you. The old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” is true, so consider your rolodex more valuable than your wallet when it comes to achieving success in business.

Here is how to create a basic contact management strategy, stay connected and organized from your desktop to your phone, and give you some insight onto how to expand your network.

Your Contact Management Strategy

You will always have different tiers of relationships, from family, to friends, to associates, to acquaintances and everyone in between. In order to organize your database, you need to have specific categories in mind. Consider things like the strength of your relationship, how important the relationship is to you, the last time you connected with them, three things about them, what company they work for, their location, and their contact information (e-mail, phone, address, LinkedIn). You can use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, an Access Database, Act!, or another similar software package to help manage your contacts, using these columns. Aside from these software packages, there are other applications listed below that can help you. By organizing your contacts under these main categories, it will allow you to reconnect with the right people, and expand your relationships.

1. From Your Social Graph to Your Desktop

It’s very important that you have physical copies of your contact database as a backup. Although, you may participate in a handful of social networks, that data resides in the cloud, and not on your desktop. Backing up your social graph means that if, for some reason, your social media profile disappears, is removed entirely, or the social network collapses and you lose everything, you’ll be protected regardless. Try to get in the habit of exporting your contacts so that you have a copy on your desktop in an Excel file.

Here is how to save your social friends, contacts, and followers on your desktop:

Facebook: Although Facebook might appear as a wall garden, there’s actually a trick to capturing your friends’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Create or use your existing Yahoo! e-mail account and import your Facebook friends right into your address book. Then download the .CSV file to your desktop.

LinkedIn: After logging into LinkedIn, go straight to the “connections” link in the global navigation area. At the bottom of the page, you’ll see “export connections.” From the next screen, you can download the .CSV file to your desktop.

Twitter: You don’t have the ability to view email addresses or phone numbers of your Twitter followers. You can, however, download a .CSV file of 100 of your followers to your desktop by using Twitter Export. The information in the spreadsheet will be the name, user name, follower and following count, and their bios.

2. From the Cloud

Gist (Free): Use this tool to make sense of your social connections. After creating an account, you can immediately import your contacts from Outlook, Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail, Lotus Notes, as well as .CSV files and vCards. After you have established your network, you can view the last time you’ve reached out to each of your contacts, how many emails you’ve sent and received from them, and what companies they work for.

JibberJobber (Free to $9.95/month): This tool allows you to organize and manage your job search, track relationships, target companies, and track the jobs you apply to. With a free basic account, you can manage up to 75 contacts. There is no limit to the amount of contacts you can store with a premium account.

Xobni for Microsoft Outlook (Free): Microsoft Outlook can help you manage your address book, but with the Xobni add-on, you can integrate the social media profiles of your contacts. This means you’ll receive additional contact information that wouldn’t normally be included in your address book.

3. From Your Phone

The strongest relationships are created in the real world, not the virtual world. If you’re on a plane, train, car, or just at a networking event, you’ll want to capture contact information from the people you meet. A paper business card is still extremely important for exchanging information with people, but the following tools will help store information virtually on the go.

Groups 2 ($5.99): The fastest way to manage your contacts on your iPhone with a drag and drop interface. You can create your own groups, send a mass e-mail to members of each group, and attach vCards to share information with others. Aside from sending e-mails, you can make quick calls, and send text messages. An additional benefit with this application is that is syncs with your Windows address book.

WorldCard Mobile ($5.99): You can scan business cards onto your iPhone by taking a photo, and it instantly recognizes data from business cards and sorts the fields into a contact list. You can save a lot of information into each contact profile, including an image, e-mail, website address, phone number, SMS, and maps.

Bump (Free): If you want to save precious time, and want to have a little fun with your in-person networking, then this application is for you. With Bump, all you have to do is hold your iPhone next to a fellow iPhone user and “bump” them together. You can share photos and contacts with other people who have iPhones and the Bump application.

Growing Your Network

There is a lot of value in a contact management system. It saves you time from researching information about people you’ve already met, and can act as a reference sheet. It also allows you to keep organized and aware of which contacts you haven’t spoken to in a while, and who works at companies that you either want to collaborate with, or work for. The payoff of investing time in a contact management system is that you will be able to keep track of the people you meet, refer back to it, and grow it throughout the course of your life.

In order to expand your network, you need to target people who are in your industry, and those who share the same interests and passions that you have. Once you connect with them in-person, through e-mail or phone, put them into your contact management system.

By Dan Schawbel, published on Mashable 3rd June, 2010