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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 of the 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?

They may think they do, but the truth is that many people consider contacting others via messaging app or LinkedIn when they need something to be networking. Unfortunately, there is more to it than that – a lot more. Simple sporadic outreaches are wasted opportunities to build relationships and that’s what I want to focus on in this article. It turns out that you can use networking best practices that are modified for the online medium to build a solid business network.

So here it is, The Short Online Networking Course.

Introduction  

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.

Bear in mind that this is the process I follow, and it is by no means an infallible system. It is a work in progress that is being constantly refined and improved upon, and I am sure in a tear or two, it would have evolved so that some elements have been dropped while others have been added. However, the underlying principles are sound, and I use this system every day.

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.

Giving

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 you will be rewarded many times over in time.

Patience

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.

Routine

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 too. 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.

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. Remember that you can help them by tapping into your network for resources that can help them as well as the other way around.  

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. 

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 575 million as of 2019, 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 easily find specific people.

Before you start, make sure your LinkedIn profile is complete as 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.

Next, I use TribeMine* to manage my networking activities, importing connections from LinkedIn and then building a profile on each over time. TribeMine also reminds me when I need to reconnect with people, so I can be reaching out on a continuous basis, safe in the knowledge that I am not being a nuisance or delaying too long, in which case they might have forgotten who I am. It allows me to quickly and easily review the profiles I have built up so that I can use pertinent details in my dealings with each connection to demonstrate my genuine desire to know them better and build relationships with them. Ultimately, it makes me more memorable.

TribeMine also offers easy, automated connecting between members on its platform, allowing you to meet and build relationships easily. The community is small, but it will grow in time.

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. 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 to 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 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 candidate 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 is worth talking to at least.

I will use my process for online outreach as an example, although I highly advise you to adapt it to your own style and strengths.

First, the setup. I use LinkedIn as my source platform and TribeMine as my network management tool. As stated before, I will use Quora as my feeder platform periodically to identify high-quality prospects as well.

Finding Prospects

I will open both platforms and 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. 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.   

Breaking the Ice

break 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, depending on the reaction, 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.

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. If they have published a book or been appointed to a position, I congratulate them. To make the process easier, I use one of several scripts that I have had success with in the past and which I saved on TribeMine. Obviously, I modify it to be applicable to this particular prospect and then resave it on Tribemine.

You can find examples of these scripts online, which can then be modified to fit your needs.

I then ask a question about the subject matter. 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 enter their basic details into the Prospect Manager on TribeMine. This allows me to store information to the people I am trying to initiate a conversation with without having to keep notes or worry about overlooking someone.

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 time 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 a person accepts my invitation and replies to my ice breaker, I upgrade them from a prospect to an off-site connection on TribeMine and enter as much information into their connection profile on TribeMine as I can find.

The last step is to set the next contact date in TribeMine. With a new connection, you don’t want to leave it too long before contacting them again. Where I was able to have a back and forth conversation with them, I will set the next contact date on their TribeMine profile page to four to six weeks from the first outreach. If no conversation occurred, I usually set it to remind me two weeks after the first outreach so that I can try my luck then.

Follow-Up

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 then update their profile in TribeMine and 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 say “No” (this has never happened to me yet), I would delete their profile on TribeMine as well as remove it from my connection list on Linkedin. No point having someone listed as a connection who does not want to be one.

Connection Cycle

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. As stated, I use TribeMine for this as it offers a flexible, easy-to-use way to do this. 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 manually.

Early in the connection cycle, 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.

Gifting

Once you establish a connection cycle through which you reconnect with each connection regularly, you need to 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 or alma maters, 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

sort your connections into circles

Sorting involves classifying each connection according to their value to your network, reciprocation (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 TribeMine’s circles feature. These allow classification as follows;

  • 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.  

Meet-Ups

meetup

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. That “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 a 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.

Performance Tracking

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.

Tribemine has a built-in relationship tracking system that scores your relationship with other members you are connected to. It also has a rating feature that allows you to assign a score of between one and five stars to each connection. This can be adjusted easily and makes gauging each connection’s value easy.

Step 4: Pruning Your Network

prune your network from time to time

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.

Again, Tribemine provides a robust system that reminds me whenever it’s time to reconnect with those within my network. It even allows me to specify different period between my outreaches for each of my connection circles (the groups I have sorted my connections into according to their value, as described above).

Conclusion

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 discovered some ideas that will help you build a better online network.

*Disclaimer: for the record, I am the founder and developer of Tribemine.