The time to start preparing for a job search is before you start.

Job counselors recommend building your "brand," finding solid networking groups and researching both careers and companies.

Of course, life doesn't always work out as planned. If you are laid off or find yourself otherwise unemployed, the counselors recommend pausing to do some assessments before you start applying for everything you see.

The following is advice from Twin Cities counselors:

Build a brand

Your "personal brand" is the latest phrase for how your present yourself to others. It includes your reputation, your education, your career experience and your values.

"The hallmark of a really good brand is that it's clear," said Carmen Croonquist, president of the Minnesota Career Development Association.

That means your personal pitch, your résumé and career portfolio all must project that same vision. A pitch should be a quick speech you've developed that you can give anyone you run into who asks about your career.

A portfolio is "something tangible you can bring to a networking meeting or job interview," she said. "It gives a person so much more confidence."

The blessing or curse of the Internet age is the number of ways you can be recognized, Croonquist said. Before you post anything on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or any other network, think if it supports your personal brand. Potential employers will check all of them, but often friends or follows can be people who could help you.

"Never lose sight of how small the Twin Cities are — keep up a positive reputation," said Karen Kodzik, founder of Cultivating Careers.

Use LinkedIn

"Online networking is very important," said Lisa Cook, a career development specialist who runs the website Plan B Connections. "I have heard a recruiter say he would not even consider a candidate without a LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is the largest online professional networking site worldwide."

That means working on LinkedIn now, joining professional groups there and participating in industry conversations, Cook said. Recruiters are finding candidates online more and more.

Croonquist said people should concentrate their time writing a summary that shows everyone their skills and ambitions. "Make it come alive," she said. The experience and education can be cut and pasted from a résumé, but people will stop and look if you have a good summary.

Use Facebook and Twitter for professional reasons, as well, Cook said.

"Following recruiters and potential employer websites on Twitter and Facebook can be helpful," she said. "I once heard a story from a recruiter who sourced a candidate for a hard-to-fill job on Twitter. The person tweeted that he wanted a new job because his commute was too long. You never know when or how you will make key contacts — you need to be out there putting your best professional foot forward at all times."

Croonquist helped one of her clients do a LinkedIn search and found an intern at a health system. She recommended her client reach out to the intern to see who she talked to at the hospital and also about whether the internship was beneficial.

Networking is where it's at

Use the Internet for job leads, but don't use it to land the job. That's the advice of career consultants.

Relationships are key, and that means researching trade and professional groups and picking one or more that you can commit to.

"Face-to-face networking is most effective," Cook said. "It can be done through informational interviews, professional association meetings and taking on new projects and leadership roles inside or outside their current organization. Volunteering is a great way to make key connections and showcase one's qualifications and ability to 'add value.' "

This legwork ideally should be done before you start looking because it takes time.

"Never stop networking even when you have a job in hand," Kodzik said. "Starting to engage a network only when you need one is very difficult."

When Croonquist was a graduate student in Duluth, she joined a career development association and then called everyone in the directory.

"The first couple times were scary," she said, but one of her conversations led to the person sending Croonquist's résumé to her boss when she resigned.

The legwork paid off. Croonquist had a job a week after she graduated.

When you do join a networking group, volunteer to be on a committee. "That's how you get to be known," she said. If you help plan a conference, you also might have one-on-one access with the speakers as well as attendees.

Networking isn't all about formality either. It's a mind-set.

"Networking is about friendship," said Elizabeth Craig, master career strategist with ELC Global. "Clients and participants tell me this four-word sentence has immediately made a switch in their thinking and the resulting actions they take."

One of Craig's clients told her he was talking to a salesperson while purchasing a gift and learned he had the same degree as her sister-in-law, who had a significant leadership position at the firm where he wanted to work. The salesperson gave him his sister-in-law's contact information.

Research if changing careers

Whether you're looking to advance in your current job or switch careers, the most important steps are research and follow-up.

"Career changes often happen in small incremental steps through rebranding yourself," Cook said. "Earning a new degree or certification or completing a relevant training program can be helpful in this process, but often that is not enough. Your brand is your professional reputation. You need to rewire your brand through gaining new kinds of experience (volunteering is terrific for this), adding new connections to your network, and telling a new career story."

That story needs to highlight new qualifications and networking contacts. Also, you need to make sure it's reflected on LinkedIn and perhaps even a blog or website, she said.

But before you take the steps, you need to first assess why it is you want a change, Craig said.

"Is it that they have worked a year in their field of study, don't like it and know they need to transition to something else? Or, did they happen into their position and now have been there too long? Or, they really liked the position when they began, they've changed and the company has changed?" she said.

Then comes assessing what new skills you might need, then how to achieve that.

Once a decision is made, research not only about the industry on the Internet. Talk to people, Croonquist said.

"The trend lately with adults changing careers is getting an internship in a given field," she said. "It can give you a taste of what it's like in a different career field without jumping in."

Build bridges

During the job search process, it's essential to "maintain impeccable manners — send a thank-you letter after an interview. Go the extra mile. Do not be late or have grammatical errors in your materials or underdress for an interview," Cook said.

"Even if you determine a job isn't the right fit for you, you never know who that employer might know or how they might help your career," she said. "I once had an employer who did not hire me; however, she referred me to another organization that did hire me. After I learned I had not gotten the job, I had asked the employer for an informational interview to discuss my interest in a topic that had arisen during my job interview. I had developed a rapport with my interviewer and she was willing to refer me as a qualified candidate for a job being filled by her colleague."