With so many online networking options, social distancing efforts shouldn't stop you from establishing mutually beneficial connections. While virtual activities often aren't as organic as coffee meetings and in-person happy hours; however, if done strategically, the connections you make can be just as much, if not more, meaningful.
Here are five online networking strategies that will help you build stronger relationships while you can't connect in-person.
1) Focus on Your Existing Connections First
All too often, when people decide to invest more effort in building their professional network, they focus solely on making new connections and forget about most of the ones they already have.
Even if you haven't stayed in touch with your connections, it's still easier to reconnect with them than to restart your network from scratch. Depending on how much you know about them, you can:
- Send a message to check in and see how they're doing
- Comment on their social media posts
- Share a valuable piece of content that reminded you of them
During these stressful times, everyone needs support, even it's just someone to bounce ideas off. Offer to be there, and if your connections reciprocate interest in having a conversation, it can open the door for introductions and other networking opportunities down the line.
2) Adopt a Contact Management System
One of the challenges of online networking is that it's less experiential, which makes it easy to forget how you met people, and when you last interacted with them. To ensure that you remember critical details and reach out consistently, you need to create a contact management system.
The easiest way to get started is to adopt a CRM that stores all of your contacts and log emails/meeting notes. If you're already using one for selling, create a field to separate your networking contacts from your prospects.
If you don't have a CRM, you can adopt a simple, affordable option like Streak or Zoho. It's also possible to create a contact management system in a spreadsheet; however, it's much more time-consuming since you have to manually enter all your information instead of leveraging software that does at least half the work for you.
If you want to learn how to create a complete system, you can check out our article How to Strengthen Your Network with a Contact Management System.
3) Look Beyond LinkedIn
One of the biggest online networking mistakes people make is limiting their efforts to LinkedIn. It's a great place to start, and you should maintain an active presence on it. However, since it's the largest online networking platform, it can be challenging to stand out from all the noise, especially if you're trying to build relationships with a niche audience.
Before investing a lot of effort into online networking, do some research to figure out where your target audience hangs out online. It may be LinkedIn, or it could be other platforms including:
- Industry forums
- Twitter hashtags and chats
- Facebook groups
Once you find the best spaces, take some time to observe before diving right in and posting. Just like in-person events, every online networking platform has its own culture and behavioral expectations. You need to learn what those expectations are so you can create posts that people want to engage with.
4) Attend Small Virtual Events
Just because you can't meet people in-person doesn't mean events can't be part of your professional networking strategy. There are tons of virtual events occurring every week that target almost every professional audience.
If your primary goal is to establish new relationships, you need to be strategic and attend small events where you have the highest likelihood of making connections. This varies from in-person events where bigger is often better.
The problem with attending virtual meetings with several hundred people is that, unlike in-person conferences where it's extremely easy to have side conversations and make connections, it can be very awkward to try and network at large online events.
At small online events, you have a much greater chance of getting to participate in the conversation and be visible to the other attendees. This makes it much easier to follow-up with people afterward.
Keep in mind that you shouldn't confuse intentionally intimate events with the ones that aren't valuable enough for people to want to attend them. Look for events that either have a limited amount of attendees or are invite-only. These tend to attract higher quality attendees.
If you can't find any of those kinds of events, consider hosting your own. Choose a topic that's either very timely or entertaining and invite a curated group of connections to discuss. Being the host lets you connect people who should know each other, and they'll often return the favor with other introductions.
5) Share Helpful, Authentic Content
Regardless of what kinds of online networking you engage in, all of the content you share needs to be directly helpful to your audience.
Even if your goal is to sell or get funding, you need to focus on providing value and wait for organic opportunities for you to talk about your business. Though it can be time-consuming, this approach will yield much better results.
If you build authentic relationships, people will naturally ask about what you do. This allows you to talk about some of the cool things your business does without giving a direct pitch. Even if your connection isn't a good fit, because you've created a positive relationship, they're likely to refer you to others who may be interested in partnering with you. If you pitch people unsolicited, you'll likely never make it this far.