Professional networking, including online networking, can help you find a job and advance your career. It can also be rewarding to connect with others in your profession or industry to share ideas and best practices. However, despite the benefits of professional networking, many people find the process challenging, even intimidating.
The disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for many workers to grow their professional network, according to research from Robert Half. Nearly half (47%) of the workers we surveyed who said their career had stalled since the start of the global health crisis reported feeling stuck by their inability to expand their network.
But even before the pandemic, many people struggled to build their professional networks because they lacked confidence, or they were unsure how best to approach the process. While technology makes virtual connections a snap, online networking can still be daunting. Also, making connections is just one step — you also need to invest time and effort in cultivating and maintaining those relationships.
So, how should you approach professional networking, including online networking? See below for a few tips that can help you feel more confident about the process and maximize your results:
Choose the right channels
Most people gravitate toward LinkedIn for online networking. It’s a natural choice if you’re looking to connect with current or former colleagues, post industry updates, share knowledge, and search for jobs.
You can also use social media channels like Instagram and Snapchat for online networking. However, keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable connecting with professional contacts through those apps.
Contributing to professional online communities or forums is another option for building your digital presence and business relationships. So is joining virtual conferences. Here are two quick tips for using that latter strategy to enhance your online networking:
- After you register for a virtual event, use your social media accounts, like LinkedIn or Twitter, to announce that you’ll be attending — that can help spark conversation with valued contacts who may also be planning to attend the event.
- During the event, be an engaged participant. If possible, ask questions and share relevant expertise during the sessions you attend. Just be sure to add value to the conversation — and be careful not to overdo it.
Assess your online profiles
Your LinkedIn profile and photo say a lot about you, so be sure to keep them up to date and looking professional. Including relevant details about your education, work history, volunteer work and other interests may lead to conversations with your contacts about commonalities, which can be networking gold.
Also, if you want to use other channels for online networking, like Facebook, be mindful of the images and posts you’re sharing. You may need to adjust the privacy settings for or remove that “spring break 2015” photo album, for example, or details about other events or interests you only want to share with close friends and family members.
Be strategic with outreach
Online networking success isn’t about amassing as many contacts as possible for the sake of quantity. So, think carefully before sending and accepting professional network requests. Asking someone you don’t know to connect with you could come across as pushy or create awkwardness.
A good strategy is to prioritize connecting with those you’ve worked with or met already. If there’s someone in your extended network you’d like to get in touch with, then ask for an introduction.
That said, if you don’t have a shared connection to someone you’d really like to connect with, be sure your outreach includes a note explaining why you’d like to connect. This can take some extra effort, but it can increase your chances of breaking the ice with a new contact. Here’s an example:
Hi Letitia – I recently read your article on XYZ website with tips for managing remote teams. I lead a remote team at ABC Startup, and I wanted you to know that your tips have been very useful to me. I was curious if you had any advice for managing teams in a hybrid work environment? Our company is going hybrid this fall, and I wonder how I should adjust my management approach. I appreciate your consideration and hope you’ll also connect with me here on LinkedIn. If you prefer, you can send an email to [email protected]. Thank you!
In this example, Justine provides Letitia with details on who she is, how she knows her, and why she’s reaching out. Also, Justine is giving Letitia the option to send her an email. That allows Letitia to communicate with Justine outside of social media before deciding to add her to her network.
Be a good resource
You want your professional connections to be there for you when you need advice or support. But you want others to view you as a resource, too. Otherwise, you risk weakening your ties.
You can be a resource to others by sharing interesting news items and commenting on posts. For example, take Justine from our earlier example. She could post about Letitia’s article on LinkedIn, for example, sharing a link to the article along with a comment like, “This was a great read. I found all the tips helpful, but especially Tip #3!”
Through this process, Justine is alerting her current contacts to content she found helpful while also giving Letitia a nod — and perhaps also increasing the chance of Letitia adding her to her network. But like all things with online networking, be strategic in your approach and strive to add value, otherwise you risk annoying others.
You can also be a good resource by proactively helping others when you can. For example, if you learn through your online networking that a former colleague is looking for a new job, offer to provide a professional reference, if appropriate. Or see if someone in your network might know of opportunities at their company that might align well with the skills and experience of your contact.
Online networking offers high ROI
Fostering professional contacts, whether through online networking or in person, requires commitment. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone, either. But the potential return on your investment is high. Through professional networking done well, you can gain a competitive edge when seeking leads for jobs, increasing your professional knowledge and staying on top of trends.
One final tip for success: Never fail to thank your contacts for their support. For example, when members of your network step up to offer advice or introduce you to a new connection, be sure to thank them promptly, either through a phone call, an email or a personalized note. If a contact does something especially significant — such as help you land a new position or refer you to a great new hire — show your gratitude by sending a small gift, if appropriate.
These simple but meaningful gestures will help you build long-lasting professional connections and ensure your valued contacts will be glad to assist you again in the future. Even more important, you can strengthen your professional reputation, which will make it easier for you to grow your professional network.