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It wasn’t long ago that networking meant going to a physical location—an event center, a restaurant/bar, a clubhouse—and hobnobbing with strangers. You made small talk, you asked about others’ expertise, you asked for and handed out business cards.

For some, this experience was energizing and exciting—a chance to meet and mingle with potential clients or collaborators. For others, it was uncomfortable or downright terrifying. Regardless of which camp you fell into, the reality is, networking is changing (and has been for years).

Today, more than ever, our communication happens in a virtual space. We log into meetings on Zoom, Hangouts, or Skype. We send information through email. We chat with co-workers through platforms such as Slack or Discord. As this has become the new normal, so too has networking shifted into a virtual space.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this virtual shift.

One huge advantage is that virtual networking is more accessible for more people. In the past, it was difficult for many groups of people to attend an in-person networking session—parents with small children, people who are unable to drive, those with a demanding work schedule, those who live far from typical networking locations. So, even though we may be sacrificing the “in-person feel,” we open the door for a whole new set of people.

Today, networking may lean more towards online presentations or programs than a “let’s mingle and get to know each other” session. So…how do you get to know others and make valuable connections?

Hopefully, the program monitor will facilitate some icebreaker activities or small group break-out sessions. If that’s the case, be sure to be personable and make yourself memorable. Tell others a quirky fact about yourself or slip in a relevant achievement. You could even wear colorful clothing or accessories to make yourself stand out a bit more.

Another thing you can do during online sessions is to ask thoughtful questions. I am a huge proponent of asking questions, whether they are clarifying questions, questions that expound/expand upon the topic, or questions that invite a dialogue. Being engaged, in general, is always a good idea.

Toward the end of the session, if the monitor hasn’t mentioned anything about exchanging contact information, be sure to (politely) ask about it. You might even ask others for their contact info if you’re in a small break-out session. Don’t force it, but if you’ve established a good connection with others and it seems natural to ask for contact info, go ahead! It doesn’t hurt to ask.

As with any other kind of networking, it’s a good idea to follow up with potential connections afterwards. Add them on LinkedIn and send out an email to anyone who might be a valuable connection. You might even discuss meeting up in the “real world,” or you might plan to attend a similar virtual program together in the future.

The future of networking is virtual, so we might as well learn to adapt and embrace it!



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Image by Анастасия Гепп from Pixabay

Many of us have opportunities to meet new people regularly. Whether at a conference, seminar, or simply a gym class, we may be brushing shoulders with others who could prove to be value networking connections. But oftentimes we’re either A) too timid to strike up a meaningful conversation or B) bad about following up or keeping in touch once we do make a new acquaintance.

Let’s change that pattern! It’s time to turn potential alliances into solid connections. Start by following these five steps:

1. Speak Up

So many of us miss opportunities to connect with others because we’re nervous to strike up a conversation with someone new. At a conference or workshop, it’s so much easier to stick with the group of people you already know and not venture outside your comfort zone. It’s also easier to stick your nose in your phone or laptop during breaks, and not bother to seek out new acquaintances.

I challenge you to dip a toe out of your comfort zone and start talking to strangers! It may be intimidating at first, but honestly, what’s the worst that could happen? The other person may not be receptive to your efforts…so, you move on.

2. Ask Good Questions

If you’re attending a business event, you might consider coming up with a few questions ahead of time to ask would-be connections. Go over the day’s agenda, and think of relevant questions you could ask.

Another way to engage new acquaintances is to be genuinely curious about them. Go beyond “What do you do?” Dig deeper and ask questions about their client base or how they became interested in their work in the first place. Or, connect on a more personal level and ask about their background and interests (without being too nosy, of course!). If you’re going to go this route, you probably want to offer something of yourself first. For example, “I’m thrilled about all the book recommendations we’ve been getting at the conference. Do you like to read too?”

Asking questions creates bridges between people. Just make sure you’re mostly asking open-ended questions (not ones that can be answered with yes or no), and you truly listen to the reply. You don’t want to completely miss what someone says because you’re thinking up a response.

Asking questions creates bridges between people.

3. Demonstrate Your Value

When you’re connecting with a professional acquaintance, it’s a good idea to think about how you can help them, instead of focusing on what you can gain. Make it clear that this relationship is a two-way street, and you have valuable skills and services to offer.

4. Connect Within Three Days

Be sure to follow up with new acquaintances within three days, while your interaction is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Send a short email and/or connection request on LinkedIn. You might also give a brief reminder about how you met, saying something like, “It was great talking about data collection methods at the ABC Conference on Thursday. I’d love to continue the conversation sometime…”

5. Create a Follow-Up Schedule

Designate time to follow up with new acquaintances. Set your dates and plug in a calendar reminder to make sure you follow through. Don’t be too pushy, especially if you don’t get a response from your acquaintance, but do make an effort to reach out. Consider framing your message like this:

Hi Rachel,

You crossed my mind the other day because [FILL IN A REASON]. I wanted to reach out and see how you’re doing with your XYZ business. Have you had any more issues with [FILL IN DETAILS]? If you’d like to grab a cup of coffee sometime soon, please let me know. I have some free time at the end of next week.

Take care,

You worked hard to make your new acquaintances; don’t let them fall between the cracks! Your connections could prove to be fruitful, both for you and the people you meet.

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tips for successful networking

Even if you’re not looking for a new job, networking is still a valuable pursuit. It’s a chance to learn more about your industry, the jobs you didn’t know existed in your field, how to advance your career, or how to start your own business. For some people, networking can feel like shallow interactions that are barely masking the attitude of “what can you do for me?” but this doesn’t need to be the case. With a positive disposition and helpful strategies in place, networking can be the start of a nurturing, collaborative, trustworthy community for you.

Practice your intro

You may not be selling a product or an idea, but in networking scenarios, you need to market your skills and talent. When people ask you about your job title and your pursuits, have a clear, short summary ready to go. Practice it in the mirror or record yourself, if you can; hearing your voice played back can help you determine where to pause or when to punch up your pitch for optimal recollection, for you and your potential contacts.

Set goals for yourself

Networking goals will vary between people and industries, but it is important to set them. It’s far too easy to sweep that type of work under the rug, but setting goals will keep you accountable. Create goals that are achievable: attend at least one networking event within the next month, reach out to three new people in your industry, or schedule a meeting with an existing contact. Once you meet those goals, make new ones.

Treat every encounter as important, because it is

While it is easy to think of networking as a means to a new job, there is more to be gained from these interactions. Don’t dismiss someone because they can’t help you right now: the benefit of continued communication could come around in three months or three years. Keep in mind that they could also introduce you to someone else who needs your skills.

Follow up

After you meet these new contacts, you need to reach out before they start collecting dust. Use the method of communication that works for both of you: phone, email, Skype, or face-to-face. Check in regularly and ask them about what they’re working on, what projects they see for the near future, and the skills and experience needed to complete their work. If your skills don’t align with their needs, you might recommend someone from your network. Consistent, thoughtful communication will hopefully result in contacts thinking of you when relevant opportunities come across their desk.

Bring people together

As you your network grows and you learn about the skills and needs of your contacts, you may realize that one needs the services of the other. This is what networking is all about: helping people connect. Hopefully, they will get a chance to repay the favor: when one of those contacts comes across a job posting or freelance opportunity in your field, you know they will think of you first.

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