Since starting my own company in 2014, networking has been the lifeblood of my new business development, and online networking has been a huge component. By online networking, I don’t mean seeing how many LinkedIn connections you can get, “liking” lots of other people’s posts or having accounts on every new social media channel that launches—I’m talking quality over quantity.
Now, to some extent, networking of any kind has a numbers component—you meet and talk to many more people than actually become valuable contacts or clients. However, by applying a targeted, thoughtful and authentic approach, you can make your online networking much more successful.
Here are five tips to help you make the most of online networking:
1. Start local.
This one may seem counterintuitive when using a global tool like the Internet, and in many situations it makes a lot of sense to reach beyond your immediate geography. However, when you’re getting started with online networking, connecting with people in your own backyard first has its advantages: People may be more likely to connect with you if you’re local, you have a better shot at getting a face-to-face meeting and building a solid network locally helps establish quality connections to build from later.
2. Find a personal connection or shared point of reference.
When seeking out people to connect with, start with what you may have in common—for example, hometown, alma mater, previous employers, clubs/organizations, volunteering/causes, etc. Referencing whatever common ground you may have with a prospect helps instantly build rapport and gives them a reason to connect with you. Relevant professional connections are best because they also offer some implied credibility, but even personal connections can at least be a conversation starter.
3. Why this person?
When reaching out to someone you don’t yet know, it’s very important to have a clear reason why you want to meet this specific person. This goes beyond shared background—there are lots of people who share an alma mater or previous employer. This is giving the person a reason why you need them specifically, and therefore, they will be more likely to give you some of their valuable time. For example, perhaps you are considering a career move from a large company to a startup and you identify someone who followed a similar career path, lives locally and shares your passion for great user experience—share that with your prospective contact and they’ll understand why you want to speak to them and may be more likely to want to help.
4. What, specifically, are you asking for?
It’s a good practice to put some thought behind this question before any meeting, but particularly when you’re asking to meet with a new contact. This helps you clearly structure the request and gives the prospect a distinct idea of what you’re looking for and if/how they can help. Personally, I cringe when I receive a coffee meeting or networking request that’s as vague as, “I’d like to meet you” or “I’d like to pick your brain.” Instead, state as specifically as you can what you would like to learn, discuss or anything else you’re hoping to get out of the connection.
5. Ask for the meeting.
Just connecting with someone on LinkedIn does not a valuable contact make. If there’s someone you want to learn from, get help from or otherwise has something you want, you must actually talk to the person, preferably face to face (or via video chat if needed). When a friend asked for some networking advice, including constructing an email to a new professional contact, I coached him on the points outlined above and we concluded the note with a request to meet over coffee. He was a little nervous about sending it, to which I responded, “The worst thing that happens is he says no.” He laughed and agreed. The bottom line is this: You’ll be pleasantly surprised how often people will say yes if you just ask.
When you do write that first note, here are a few more tips for success:
- Use their professional email address whenever possible, personal email is the next best, and only use social media messaging if you absolutely must.
- In your note, use a “friendly formal” tone—sound like you’re an actual human (vs. a generic script), but keep it professional.
- And finally, follow up! If you don’t get a response the first time, I typically write at least two more notes before giving up (people get busy, emails get buried). Even then, I’ve gotten several responses months after my original note!