I was thinking about the books about networking that I have read, and it occurred to me that I haven’t found anything groundbreaking about networking online.
Sure, some networking books mention using LinkedIn to network online, but they focus on face-to-face networking. So, I thought I’d put together a little something focused on networking online.
You may think that this is a pointless exercise. Everyone knows how to network online, right?
The average person trying to get more business may think they know how to network. And many may even see (what they perceive to be) good results from their efforts.
But these good results could always be better.
Table of Contents
- Do we really need a short online networking course?
- The networking misconception
- About the short online networking course
- Understand Networking Basics
- It’s Not a Numbers Game
- Step 1: Plan Your Network
- Step 2: Choose Your Platform(s)
- Step 3: Outreach
- Finding Prospects
- Breaking the Ice
- Connection Cycle
- Sorting into Circles
- Performance Tracking
- Step 4: Pruning Your Network
- Step 5: Rinse and Repeat
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Do we really need a short online networking course?
Yes, I think so. And the reason is that there are so many assumptions about networking out there and many people are not getting the most out of their networks. With a few simple tweaks, your online network can become bigger, better and more valuable to you and your business.
The networking misconception
The truth is that many people consider contacting others via a messaging app or LinkedIn when they need something to be networking. They see it as a purely transactional activity.
“I need something. Let me look through my Rolodex or LinkedIn connection list and hopefully I can find someone who can help me. Hopefully, they’ll remember me.”
This is quite different from real networking.
Real networking involves more than asking for things when you need them. It involves more that introducing yourself only to people you think may be of value to you when and if you stumble across them online.
Some may say that real networking must be done face-to-face. Perhaps that was true a few years ago, but in the wake of the global pandemic, things have changed. There’s now no reason why you can’t use networking best practices, suitably modified for the online medium, to build a solid business network.
About the short online networking course
This mini-course will cover the fundamentals of business networking to help get you networking online in a sustainable and effective way.
Obviously, it won’t cover the topics in-depth or go into the nuances of establishing and building relationships as it is a short course. It will, I hope, not only allow you to get a birds-eye-view of online networking, but also show you that, like so many other things in life, online networking is a process which has steps that can be followed. This does not mean that it’s easy. It means that anyone can do it.
This article will also not deal with getting noticed online through your activity on the various social media platforms as this warrants an in-depth article of its own. It will deal solely with approaching selected individuals that you have already identified and building relationships with them is they are receptive to your efforts.
I should mention that not only am I an introvert, but I live in a remote location that makes effective face-to-face networking difficult, even for those who love networking. If it works for me, it can work for you, whatever your situation. Give it a try.
You will find a lot more details regarding each aspect of online networking at tribemineblog.com.
Understand Networking Basics
Most skills have a set of basic principles that underpin them, and effective online networking is no different. Below are the core principles that must be borne in mind when networking as they make the difference between effective and ineffective networking.
The first principle that needs to be embraced to make online networking effective is that of generosity. Be a giver, not a taker. That means giving of your time and expertise without expecting anything in return. This takes some getting used to but if you give generously without asking for anything in return, you will find that, over time, those in your network will be happy to help you.
Networking takes time. You will seldom hit it off with a connection the first time you interact with them, especially online.
Most relationships are built over months or even years. During the initial phase of your relationship building efforts, all the initiative will come from your side; you will be the one reaching out to the other person repeatedly trying to make conversation as well as spending time researching who they are and what they do to improve the chance that they will engage with you.
It will seem like a slog to begin with, but it’s all part of the process. There is no shortcut. Building each relationship will take time and effort.
Building a relationship with each of your connections will require you getting in touch with them regularly. You need to reach out to them often enough that they remember who you are but not so often that you become a nuisance. Contacting each of your connections once every two months or so should be sufficient.
It’s Not a Numbers Game
Networking is not about seeing how many connections you can make. It’s about finding high-quality individuals who share your drive, passion and professionalism and who will be useful to not only you, but to the others in your network as well. Being part of a high-quality network of twenty people will be far more useful and rewarding than being “connected” to 2000 people on LinkedIn.
Okay, now that we have the underlying principles out of the way, and we understand what will be required, it’s time to get down to that steps to be taken to build our online network.
Step 1: Plan Your Network
Although you shouldn’t be a snob about connecting with people, you should have some idea of which characteristics you are looking for in members of your network. You can read more about how to properly plan your network here.
Create a list of people you know who could be included in your network. This is your Network List. Be sure to include their position, industry, interests, education and other pertinent details. You may already start to see commonalities between those on your list, commonalities that you could use to introduce your network members to one another.
You can then list online places where you could find additional members for your network, focusing on specific industry or interest-based online groups or associations.
Brainstorm keywords that will help you identify the right kinds of groups in the social media platform(s) you are using.
Remember that if you have friends and family, you already have a network. Include as many as you can in your network (as long as you know, like and trust them). These people most probably already know and trust you and just because they are close to you, they shouldn’t be excluded. You can help them by tapping into your network for resources that can benefit them as well as the other way around.
The information your compile in this step will be your Network Plan.
Step 2: Choose Your Platform(s)
Now that you have your plan, it’s time to decide where you are going to do your networking. In other words, which online platform(s) are you going to use to find, meet and interact with prospects and, later, connections.
However, be careful not to over-extend yourself here. I would suggest choosing one primary platform and perhaps a secondary one that you can explore for potential connections. If you try to build your network on more than one or two platforms, especially in the beginning, you risk not being able to maintain your presence on all of them.
The most obvious one and one that is integral to any online networking strategy is LinkedIn, solely because of the fact that it has hundreds of millions of businesspeople (over 822 million as of 2022, apparently) as members. I think we can safely say that anyone who takes their business seriously is on LinkedIn. It also has a passable messaging system that allows near real-time interaction to take place and a search function that allows you to find specific people easily.
Before you start, make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete as most people will look at it when you reach out to them. There are loads of articles on how to create an impressive LinkedIn profile.
LinkedIn is the ideal place to start your network prospecting. You can search through candidates and reach out to those that meet your requirements through LinkedIn itself.
I also use Quora as a “feeder” platform, searching for active, knowledgeable posters, who I then search for on LinkedIn and reach out to. I post replies to questions and ask my own questions fairly regularly.
Twitter is also a fairly good online place to start talking to people who you may be able to include in your network.
People who reply to my posts can also be good network prospects if their feedback is positive. Although not a networking platform per se, Quora has a large and active community and can be a good source for high-quality prospects.
Medium is another website that can be beneficial to your networking efforts and can act as a “feeder” platform. However, you need to post articles on the site to get real traction. However, after doing so, you can use LinkedIn to search for and engage with those connections.
Reddit can also be a great place to interact with people and you may be able to find connections there. I have poked around there and not had much luck, but I didn’t spend enough time there to see results, I suspect.
I have heard that others are able to find network prospects on sites like Instagram and in Facebook Groups. Those who make videos and post them to Youtube maintain that interactions with those who leave comments can also help you identify find prospects.
If you want to network with people in a specific industry or who share a common interest, you can also become active on niche platforms like DeviantArt (for art), Behance (for photography), MusicBanter (for musicians) and so on. You might also look at local business or area forums, some of which are very active.
Finally, I must mention Shapr, which seemed to have become quite popular. Although I have not used it myself, some of my network connections have told me that they had limited success on it. However, if it works for you, it may have a place in your workflow.
Step 3: Outreach
Okay, now it’s time for the outreach – the “cold” messaging of someone you think may be a good fit for your network. Bear in mind that the initial outreach (first message and ensuing interaction) will give you a much clearer idea whether or not the prospect is a suitable candidate for your network.
Also, be mindful of the fact that you will have to drive the initial outreach. The person you are interacting with doesn’t know who you are (and doesn’t care) so you have to demonstrate that you are someone who is genuinely interested in them and what they do, and that you’re worth talking to.
I will use my own process for online outreach as an example. Feel free to use it but I would advise you to adapt it to your own style and strengths.
First, the setup. I use LinkedIn as my source platform with Quora and Facebook as my feeder platforms if I come across potentially high-quality prospects there. I would also suggest using a way to build up profiles about each connection and track when you contact them. I use my own custom-built system.
I start with LinkedIn. I look for potential prospects by searching for keywords I have identified in my Network Plan. I also look at suggested connections on the network page.
Once I have identified someone that I think may be a good prospect, I take a look at their LinkedIn profile to inspect their description, education, experience, interests, and number of connections. This is so that I have a better idea about who they are.
I then check their activity on LinkedIn especially posts and articles they have written. You don’t want to reach out to someone who hasn’t been on the platform for years. I will also look for links to their website and/or blog in their profile and take a quick look at it/them.
Finally, I do a Google search of their name and take a look at any interesting links that come up. If there are a lot of results, I order them so that I only see the ones from the previous month or two. I don’t want to be using out-of-date information.
I double-check that the information I find is actually related to the prospect. Many people have the same names (how many John Smiths are there?) so it’s always a good idea to make sure you are not attributing the wrong information to your prospect. If in doubt, I disregard it.
I then create a contact record in my networking CRM – usually just their name and company. I will add additional details later if they respond to my outreach.
Breaking the Ice
Time to reach out.
The ice breaker is the text that you are going to use to get them to reply. When meeting someone face-to-face, your ice breaker is usually simply a question (or sometimes a statement), something witty or attention-grabbing.
“What do you do?”
“Mind if I join you?”
“Had any success meeting people here tonight?”
On the other hand, when reaching out to a person you don’t know online, your ice breaker needs to be more expansive.
Unlike the real world in which your ice breaker can automatically be followed up with additional questions or statements according to the reaction you receive, an online icebreaker must stand on its own. It must do all of the work of grabbing the prospect’s attention, engaging them and enticing them to reply – all within a very limited number of characters.
I usually use an achievement or article that the person has mentioned or posted online as the reason for contacting them.
If they have recently posted an interesting article, I might tell them that I found it insightful and relevant and thank them for posting it – and that is true.
If they have published a book or been appointed to a position, I congratulate them.
To make the process easier, I create scripts for the most common situations. These scripts contain the important things I want to say and using them ensures that I don’t have to create each message from scratch or forget anything. Obviously, I modify the script I use for each recipient.
You can find examples of these kids of scripts online, and these can then be modified to fit your needs.
I then ask a question about the topic of the message. This will (hopefully) entice them to reply.
I do not tell them who I am or anything about me – they will take a look at my LinkedIn profile if they are interested. I keep the message short and sweet.
Then I send the message – along with an invitation to connect – using the connection request form on LinkedIn.
I then update their record in my networking CRM, noting the date on which I sent the invitation.
This whole process should take around ten to fifteen minutes per prospect.
One thing to bear in mind is that I always read the article I am relying on as the “hook” in my ice breaker, or I find out some information about their company, book or whatever else I will be using. This is important as the question you ask needs to show that you actually did some research and are genuinely interested. Don’t try to fake it.
If all goes well, they will reply and you can try to start up a conversation.
Sometimes it works, while other times it doesn’t.
However, if they have accepted your invitation to connect and replied to your question, they are still worth following up with even if they don’t engage with you in conversation. They may be busy or dealing with a problem so schedule a follow-up for a few weeks later and try again at that time.
If we do start a conversation, I consider them a “contact” and set about building out their profile in my networking CRM. I add the pertinent information about their positions, industry, interests, family and so on. I will add to this information over time to flesh out their profile so I have a better idea what help to offer them and to introduce them to other people in my networking with similar data points.
I also set a follow-up date in my calendar.
When it’s time to do a follow-up outreach (by which I mean try to initiate a second conversation), I first review their LinkedIn profile, website, blog and search for them on Google again.
I either follow on from the previous conversation or select something that can be used to start a new conversation.
Because we are connected on LinkedIn, I can simply send them a message without jumping through hoops. I tell them that I am reconnecting to say hello and to find out how they are doing. I then mention the topic I want to engage them with. Hopefully, another conversation will ensue.
I don’t force the conversation and when it peters out. I wish them well and ask if it would be in order to keep in touch from time to time. If they agree, I set then next connection date to two months from that date.
If they were to say “No” (this has never happened to me yet), I would delete the profile I have created of them and remove them from my connection list on Linkedin. No point having someone listed as a connection who does not want to be one.
A successful follow-up launches the connection cycle, which is the regular, recurring interaction with each connection to build that relationship slowly and steadily over time.
In order for your connection cycle to be effective, it is essential that you reconnect with each connection regularly. You can also use a calendar app on your phone or computer to be reminded when you need to reconnect, but you will need to keep it up to date.
Early in the connection cycle, once you feel they are comfortable interacting with you, you should ask for each connection’s e-mail address so that you can directly manage communications with them.
You should also be on the lookout for things you can help them with. Offering help or advice at the right time can go a long way towards cementing a relationship. Bear in mind that this is often difficult to do as many people prefer not to tell others about their challenges.
Once you establish a connection cycle through which you reconnect with each connection regularly, you should start gifting – providing value to your connections to reinforce your relationship with them. Gifting is more of a mindset than a prescribed activity and can take any form. Here are a few gifting ideas,
- You can introduce your connection to other members of your network who share similar interests, places of residence, attended the same universities or schools, or those who have complementary skills or experience. You should also be on the lookout for problems facing your connections that can be addressed by others in your network and then make the necessary connections.
- You can find an in-depth online article relating to your connection’s interests or industry and send them the link when you reconnect with them. Make sure that the article was published recently or you risk sending them something either outdated or that they have already seen.
- Send them a hand-written note instead of an online message. In an age of electronic communication, a hand-written missive is seen as thoughtful.
- If you know of a good book that you are sure they will find enlightening, consider sending an electronic version (e-book) to them. This will cost something and should be reserved for the connections in your inner circle, in other words, your highest value closest connections.
- If you have a blog with a fair bit of traffic, offer them the opportunity to post an article on it as a guest author.
- If they have something worth telling the world about, offer to interview them and post it on your blog or website. This can be done in writing or via skype or similar software.
- If they have written a book, do a review on your website or blog and let them know (if the review is positive). You can also review their book on the various platforms in which it is sold. And, if you are feeling particularly generous, you can buy the book – and even buy copies for selected members of your network.
Sorting into Circles
Sorting involves classifying each connection according to their value to your network, reciprocation potential (their willingness to share and give) and their initiative (their willingness to reach out to you without waiting for you to contact them all the time). Each class of connection allows you to assign certain rules to all of your connections therein, making management easy.
I use the following classifications;
- Outer circle – This is the default classification. All of my connections start off in the outer circle and most stay there. I contact my outer circle connections once every two to three months.
- Inner circle – I move connections to the inner circle if they show initiative by reaching out to me and make it obvious that they are interested in building a relationship. I contact inner circle connections once a month.
- Core circle – These are my closest connections who offer help and advice without being asked to do so and stay in contact regularly. I include friends and business partners in this group. I contact these people once every two weeks.
The point of organizing connections this way is to make reconnecting with them at appropriate intervals easy. Those who are closer and more valuable to you should be contacted more regularly. Others not.
It typically takes between six months and one year before I am able to realistically gauge the value of each connection well enough to consider sorting them, and most remain in the default outer circle.
No matter how well you get to know your network connections online, at some point you should try to meet them face-to-face. This can take the form of a meeting or via a tool like Skype.
This “face time” will add a new dimension to the relationships you engage with in this way and is essential for engendering high levels of trust and empathy.
The upshot is that once you have built up your inner and core circles, reach out and either set up an in-person meeting, if convenient, or suggest chatting “face-to-face” online. It’s a good idea to do this periodically with your higher value connections in particular.
You are most probably tracking the sales, web traffic and advertising ROI in your business, so why not also track your network performance. After all, you want to dedicate your time to helping and interacting only with people who are engaged and demonstrate an interest in you and what you are doing.
However, you don’t want to jump the gun and get rid of someone who may become a valuable connection before truly giving them a chance to reveal who they are. Many people take a while to warm up to new acquaintances, so you need to give them enough time to show their mettle, after which time you can decide whether or not they are worth including in your network.
So how should you track performance?
It’s simply a case of getting into the habit of making a quick note whenever you contact them, or when they contact you. After a year or so, compare the outgoing (you contacting them) and incoming (them contacting you) initiatives, as well as who did favors for whom, and make a judgment call.
Step 4: Pruning Your Network
If a networking connection turns out not to be valuable – in other words, you are doing all the heavy lifting over an extended period and they give little or nothing back – it’s time to get rid of them.
This does not mean that you delete them from your network. It simply means that you cease network building activities with them. You can always try again in the future.
Step 5: Rinse and Repeat
Networking is all about making a sustained effort over time. It should become a habit.
To this end, time dedicated to networking must be added to your daily/weekly routine. Most of us meet so many people in the course of our work that it’s easy to forget people you have met (even those you liked) if you are not reminded regularly. And that’s the secret to building a solid network: reminding your networking connections regularly that you are around and that you have a genuine interest in their wellbeing and success.
Online networking is a viable, effective strategy for building long-term relationships in business. However, as with most things, there are better and worse ways to approach this vital activity. Perhaps you are already using the steps enumerated above to manage your online networking. If not, I hope you have discovered some ideas that will help you build a better online network.