Successful networking can open doors to mentorship, professional development, friendship, and career growth.
Of course, things have been different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are many more of us working from home, but professional and industry events of all sizes were also canceled or shifted to online formats. These changes all pose barriers to the kinds of serendipitous moments that can spark connections that lead to lifelong relationships.
Still, that doesn’t mean networking has to be off the table. “Networking is connecting—and right now we all need more connection,” says Susan McPherson, founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies and author of The Lost Art of Connecting. “Reframe the term ‘networking’ to instead be ‘reaching out to connect on a deeper level.’ We are collectively all experiencing loss right now. No matter who you are or where you are on the planet, the lack of human connection is taking its toll,” she says. “This is the time to reach out via whatever means feel most comfortable to you and start conversations.”
While in the past, networking opportunities may have been limited to being in—or being able to travel to—a certain physical location, now there are countless opportunities to connect with people and groups no matter where you or they are based in the world.
“With the proliferation of virtual conferences and real-time networking solutions, we now have systems that allow us to pop in spontaneously to events whenever we have the time,” says Lola Bakare, CMO advisor, inclusive marketing strategist, and leader of groups on networking apps like Clubhouse.
Here are six tips to help you forge new relationships using digital channels even during the pandemic.
1. Use the Chat Feature During Virtual Events
Instead of getting to know the person you may run into in the hall or sitting next to you at an in-person event, the chat box within virtual events has “become the new conference hallway,” says Allison Byers, founder and CEO of Scroobious, a pitch video platform that connects diverse startup founders with investors.
If the host encourages participants to introduce themselves on the chat, use this opportunity to say who you are and what you do:
- Include your name, one sentence max about what you do, and your LinkedIn URL, and add that you’re happy to make new connections.
- Keep things short as these chat boxes can fill up with comments and participants are likely to scroll through these intros pretty quickly.
- Have LinkedIn open during the virtual event, so you can respond to and initiate new connection requests in the moment. And be sure to mention the event in the messages that accompany the LinkedIn connection requests you send.
“Even if it is a huge audience, do it,” Byers says. “Networking is one of the biggest attractions of a conference. When conferences are forced to become webinars, attendees still feel the urge to meet new people.”
As an added benefit, she’s found there’s less social pressure and that digital venues tend to be less intimidating than in-person ones, where you often have to walk up and introduce yourself to strangers. As a result, people may be more likely to make new connections. Plus, having the shared experience of attending the same event is a great way to start off new relationships based on a common interest.
2. Join the Conversation on Clubhouse
Joining the audio-only platform Clubhouse, which helps users follow and connect with people with shared interests and discuss these topics in real time, has helped Bakare directly engage with influencers in her field. She successfully cofounded her own community on Clubhouse, the Professional Women of Color group, which grew to include over 4,500 members within three months of being formed.
Here are two ways to make the most of Clubhouse:
Join Rooms That Look Interesting (and Aren’t Too Crowded)
Once you join, raise your hand and, when you’re invited, speak. “When you raise your hand and are invited onto a Clubhouse ‘stage,’ you have free rein to participate in the discussion as long as the discussion moderators keep you there,” Bakare says. “Imagine one of your favorite podcast hosts like Guy Raz or Teri Gross was interviewing one of your favorite writers or entrepreneurs, and you could jump into the discussion yourself. That’s how magical Clubhouse can be and it’s how I met both Guy Kawasaki and Chris Do.”
Message People You’d Like to Get to Know Better
Send speakers who sound interesting a private message with a personalized note to get the conversation started. Note: Because Clubhouse doesn’t have its own direct messaging feature, you’ll need to look the person up on platforms like Twitter or LinkedIn to reach out.
Send your message while the room is still active and include context by mentioning that you’re listening to them on Clubhouse, Byers says. “Speakers will usually have Twitter open during the room and check their messages once it ends,” she says. “Include what caught your attention in your [message]. What did the person say that spurred you to contact them?”
Byers shared an example of an effective Twitter direct message she received after being a guest speaker in a room about startup fundraising:
“Allison, Loved hearing your raise story! Your vibe is great...love the candid, straight talk. Let’s stay in touch! [name] [website]”
“She referenced the topic of the room and that I was the speaker, said what resonated with her, and gave me her name and website,” she explains. “I appreciate that she related to my character and story, I’m now connected with her on social media, and I checked out her company.”
3. Take Advantage of Social Media Platforms to Make Personal Connections
Use platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn to find, connect with, and start having conversations with the kinds of people you’d like to get to know professionally.
On Twitter, you can set up alerts so that you get notified whenever someone you’re interested in posts an update, allowing you to be quick with a reply, Byers says. For instance, if you’re excited to grow your career in marketing for consumer products you might follow the chief marketing officers and other marketing executives of brands you admire and respond to posts they write about trends they’re seeing happen right now in the industry.
Bakare says leaving authentic comments on public conversations has helped her grow her network and strengthen her relationships. She recommends:
- Figuring out what you want to say and what value can bring to the topic being discussed
- Providing your unique perspective
- Demonstrating you’ve taken the time to absorb and learn from the conversation
Here’s a template she suggests using to help brainstorm meaningful comments you can contribute:
“Interesting @[person who wrote the post]. I’d never thought about the implications of [detail from post] before. Thank you for sharing!”
4. Take Things Beyond Social Media
Identify a handful of potential LinkedIn and Twitter contacts to reach out to and take your relationship to the next level, McPherson says. Make sure you prioritize individuals who align with your professional goals. Ask if they might be interested in a phone call or a Zoom conversation. To ensure your note is focused on their needs, mention that you’d like to learn how they’re faring during these challenging times and find out how you might be able to help.
These kinds of personal notes can be effective because as people are working from home and not socializing in person, they may be “missing those casual water cooler encounters,” McPherson says. “It actually feels good when someone reaches out to you and asks you truly how you are doing and what it is that you need most right now.”
But make sure to personalize your outreach and write a “genuine and memorable” message that demonstrates that you value the person’s time, says Aarti Gala, vice president of marketing services for the marketing agency NetStrategies. “Practically speaking, people recognize if you’re sending bulk or templated messages to connect and they will ignore them,” she says.
5. Set Up Virtual Walks With Your Colleagues
McPherson recommends setting a goal to connect with different colleagues from within your organization each week, away from the screen. You can do this by suggesting a virtual walk, where you speak to each other over the phone while each going on a separate walk wherever you are.
These outings will not only be a refreshing way to create more meaningful interaction between you and your coworkers, but they’ll also help minimize multitasking and leave more time for conversation. Plus, you can learn more about each other than you otherwise might while connecting from behind your screens, McPherson says.
“Holding these types of dialogues helps you both gain a broader understanding of the entire organization and makes you both more effective employees,” she says. “The knowledge gained will help you grow with the company.”
And the benefits go beyond your current role: These kinds of relationships with coworkers can be just as, if not more, valuable than those with people outside your organization, and may be the ones you keep and continue to cultivate long after one or both of you has left the company.
6. Remember That Growing Your Network Authentically Takes Time
Networking is a lifelong activity. The authentic connections you initiate now may create any number of new connections and opportunities over time.
For those feeling overwhelmed—including caregivers juggling competing priorities and workers across the board experiencing burnout—McPherson recommends taking small steps, such as reaching out to a couple of connections per week, saying that you’re thinking of them and asking them how they’re doing.
“For some who might find even that to be too much right now, start planning for the future,” she says. “We are beginning to see the glimmer of hope of returning to some kind of in-person [activity] sometime in the not-so-distant future.”
Use this time to think about the community you’d like to build, how you can be of support to others, and what you can contribute. Think about the people who you can reach out to in the future. That way when the time is right, you’ll be ready to take action.