4 Steps for Effective Online Networking
Alexandra Levit is the author of “New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career.” Learn more at www.newjobnewyou.com.
A popular misconception is that networking is about getting a job or landing a client. In reality, networking is about establishing relationships that provide you with valuable feedback and allow you to make educated decisions.
Business networking is key to gaining information, increasing your visibility in your field, and establishing personal connections that will help you move forward in your career. The rise of social media hasn’t changed the fact that successful human beings get even further ahead based on the strength of their networks. In fact, social media gives you the power to connect with people who you would never have the opportunity to converse with in the physical world.
Let’s look at some networking best practices, along with a few ways you can use the various social media sites to engage with previously inaccessible people and get the attention of those who are too busy to return your phone calls or e-mails.
1. Look for Ways to Expand Your Networks
In an era where the average person will have more than a dozen jobs in their career, you need to ensure that you’re looking beyond your company and immediate circle so that your networking has lifelong continuity. To that end, seek out and join professional organizations that you have a genuine interest in and attend at least one activity a month. At the same time, habitually ask your contacts if they know anyone who might be a good person for you to meet. At its core, networking should be fun. If you seek out people who care about the same things you do, you’ll enjoy networking and won’t view it as a chore.
Social media sites — especially the big ones like Facebook and LinkedIn — are a networker’s dream. LinkedIn in particular allows you to establish a professional network consisting of your connections and your connections’ connections, automatically linking you to thousands of people in your industry and related ones. It’s a painless means to create new relationships and get introduced to advantageous contacts through people you already know.
Jason Alba, the author of I’m on LinkedIn — Now What??? recommends joining relevant LinkedIn groups to expand your search visibility, and complementing a LinkedIn group with a Google or Yahoo! group. He also suggests using the Answers feature to ask a question and invite your network to respond. Questions typically range from knowledge-based issues (e.g. Does anyone know a good web-based survey tool?), to help in finding a job (e.g. Do you know of firms that employ environmental engineers in the San Francisco area?). Asking a question once a month provides an opportunity to probe your contacts in a creative way. Choose the “best answer” to bolster the reputation of the person who provided it, and thank everyone personally who participated. In turn, if someone asks a question that you can answer intelligently, do so, as this increases your visibility in the broader LinkedIn community.
Whether you’re on LinkedIn or another social network in which you engage with professionals, make it easy for potential contacts to search for you by incorporating keywords into your profile (e.g. database programmer, Linux expert). Also, include a link to your professional profiles as part of your e-mail signature line so people can click on them and learn more about you. Within your profiles, include the URLs of articles you’ve written, organizations you belong to, and events where you’re speaking.
2. Know What You Want, and What You Can Offer
Many people dislike networking because they think asking a veritable stranger for help is an imposition. As it’s human nature to want to help someone, I think you’ll find that most people will be receptive, provided you approach them the right way.
Whether you’re meeting people online or offline, you should prepare for networking conversations in advance by considering what you need from the contact. Make sure your planned request is reasonable, considering you barely know the person. Using an example from my own life, asking for 30 minutes of advice on the book publishing industry works a lot better than asking me to refer you to my agent.
Rachel Solar-Tuttle and Diane Danielson, the authors of Table Talk, say that because networking is a collaboration, every time you ask for something or meet with a potential contact, you should think about how you can help her in return. Follow your contacts’ work carefully so that you can glean insights about how you might assist them. One caveat for this step and the next one: Do not try to impress contacts by promising something you might not be able to deliver, such as a client engagement or an introduction to someone you might not be able to get a hold of.
High level individuals often use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and their blogs to publicly express what they’re working on, and the business problems that are vexing them. Pay attention to the questions they’re asking and provide helpful resources and information in the form of comments or LinkedIn Answers. If they’re in the midst of launching a new product or initiative, help them spread the word. Giving freely of your own knowledge and support is the best way to launch a one-on-one relationship that will eventually pay major dividends.
3. Contact the Person Privately
Once you’ve gotten to know the person a bit, it’s time to get more personal. Send a warm-up message to re-introduce yourself and cite recent activities of theirs that you may have followed. Try for a more intimate angle (for example, you can comment that you have a child who’s the same age, or that you also enjoy skiing and recently tried a terrific new resort in Colorado). I, for example, got the following DM on Twitter recently.
When approaching a potential contact, be friendly, respectful and brief, and be very clear about your request. Always keep in mind that the person is doing you a favor. If you’re connecting online and he says he’s in the middle of something, ask if you can talk at another time, and be conscious of his time commitments. If your request involves a conversation and you’re located in the same geographic location, it can’t hurt to try for an in-person meeting. When you sit down with your contact, offer to pay any expenses associated with the meeting, and remember to send him a thank you note afterward.
Even if you feel like the relationship is going somewhere, you should still manage your expectations. It’s unlikely that any a brand new contact will offer anything concrete like a job offer. Remember that your goal should be to gain valuable insights or information in the short-term and a meaningful professional relationship in the long-term.
4. Follow Up Regularly
It’s your responsibility to keep the lines of communication open. Did your contact give you any advice or suggest a course of action? If so, touch base every so often to remind her who you are and keep her apprised of your progress. Keep on top of her career moves and make sure she stays informed of yours. Invite her to get together again, and during the holiday season, send her a card with a nice note.
I hope these ideas make networking go down a little easier for you. One word of caution, though. Having these tactics in your back pocket does not give you permission to stalk important people. In fact, the more personal the level of interaction, the greater potential for abuse, so you must proceed with caution. Apply the 3/6 rule of networking, in which you contact someone no more than three times in a six week period. If the person or organization does not engage back within that time frame, then move on. There are plenty of valuable contacts who will be open to your overtures.
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