Virtual Networking: Many professional networking activities have moved online in the last year. Are you taking full advantage of the virtual networking opportunities out there?
The shift to remote work and virtual events has also changed the way people are approaching professional networking.
A new study from market research firm Savanta found that 46% of Americans have taken their networking to social media platforms, and 35% are attending virtual meetups. In fact, people who are currently working from home were much more likely (44%) than those working outside the home (26%) to attend virtual meetups. “When COVID-19 forced most Americans to work from home, traditional professional networking methods came to a halt,” says Sadia Corey, vice president of client development at Savanta. “As a result, online platforms became essential in forging new professional relationships. … Americans have become creative in how they use social media to interact with their networks.”
Among the virtual networking activities growing in popularity during the pandemic are joining professional groups online, connecting with industry experts on LinkedIn, following up with speakers from virtual conferences held on social media, and writing blog posts and articles to share on social media networks, according to Savanta.
If you’ve been trying to expand your professional network during the pandemic and beyond, try these tips for making a good impression online.
1. Rethink the idea of networking. It’s not just about attending every Zoom gathering out there, according to networking expert J. Kelly Hoey, author of Build Your Dream Network. “Instead of imagining the digital version of the in-person schmoozy event as being your networking choices, rethink what networking is: Networking is every single human interaction, as every interaction is a chance to start or further a relationship,” she says. Other online activities that “count” as networking include commenting on a friend’s LinkedIn post, recommending a podcast to a colleague, forwarding an article to a client or volunteering for an industry board, she says.
2. Make sure your online profiles are up to date. This should have been a given even before COVID, but it’s absolutely essential now that so many of our interactions are in the digital world. Expect that people you reach out to online will be checking up on your LinkedIn and other social profiles before they respond. Make sure all your information is accurate, and your headshot is recent. Give your personal branding a boost by using the same photo across networks and crafting professional bios that link back to your website or blog.
3. Be prepared and look professional. This goes for both tech tools and talking points, says Robert Kienzle, senior consultant with Knowmium. That means dressing professionally, having clear lighting, an eye-level webcam and a headset, if you’re going on Zoom or another video platform. “No one wants to talk to people they can’t see, especially if one person has their camera on but the other doesn’t,” he says. “Echoes and background static don’t make for pleasant conversations, either.” Take some time beforehand to prepare your thoughts and consider personal stories and relevant ideas you might want to bring up during the call, he adds.
4. Offer help freely, without expecting an immediate return. Brand strategist Blaire Brown says Facebook Groups are her favorite way to connect online. “Find a community of professionals that makes sense to your field,” she says. “It’s a great springboard to make connections. As members contribute tips and ask for advice, it opens a door for everyone in the group to provide a response.” Brown recommends offering a free consult call or advice whenever you can, without expecting anything in return. As with in-person networking, don’t be “salesy,” but go in with a “giving mindset.” Many of these types of groups have strict “no self-promotion” policies anyway, so “people who go in with the sole intention of just selling their product/service end up just annoying people and getting kicked out,” says Steve Morgan, author of Anti-Sell.
5. Leverage technology to your advantage. There are plenty of free tools out there that you can use in creative ways to help with online networking. For example, Hoey says, “Google Alerts are a smart networking tool.” Set up Alerts for prospective clients, so you can be among the first to congratulate them when they have a business success. Another simple but powerful idea: Turn your out-of-office auto-responder into a virtual networking tool. “When you’re in meetings or attending a training, put it on not to simply signal that you’re not available, but to tell your network what you’re up to,” Hoey suggests.
6. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Just as you wouldn’t attend every in-person trade show, conference or training session offered in your field, you have to be selective when it comes to virtual networking. Choose events, groups and social networks that have the most relevance to your professional ambitions and go in with a mission. If most of your field and clients interact on LinkedIn, for example, focus the bulk of your efforts there, rather than trying to build a presence on Snapchat, TikTok, Clubhouse, Dispo or whatever new social network is currently trending.
[Credit: By Theresa Hegel for ASI]