These days, we do just about everything online – from ordering food to maintaining connections with old friends, and even running entire companies from the comfort of our computer chairs. And yet for some reason, when it comes to the subject of networking, plenty of business people view this practice as an “in person only” type of thing.
In fact, there are plenty of different ways to utilize technology to conduct the same type of networking that was once only carried out in stale ballrooms at business conferences. Online networking represents a great opportunity for business professionals who are pressed for time, those with shyness issues or
Step #1 – Select your online networking venue
When it comes to online networking, there are dozens of different approaches you can take across several hundred social websites.
For example, you could focus your online networking efforts exclusively on LinkedIn by participating in industry Groups and sending messages to other professionals with whom you have some shared connections. Alternatively, if your industry has a centralized social website (for example, “Legal On Ramp,” which serves the law community), building a presence on one of these sites may make more sense in terms of potential connections.
And heck, don’t count out traditional social networks, like Facebook, Twitter and Google+. As more and more professionals begin seeing these websites as legitimate business tools, the number of business introductions that occur via social media sites is sure to increase.
Step #2 – Present yourself professionally
Once you’ve decided where and how you’ll go about forging your online connections, take a few seconds to assess the first impression given off by your existing digital presence.
Unlike in face-to-face interactions, the way you’ll be judged in the digital world isn’t tied to your hair style, the way you’re dressed or your personal mannerisms. Instead, new contacts must go off of your profile picture, email address and general use of language in order to form the same impression of who you are and what you stand for.
As a result, if your profile picture comes from a wild Saturday night at the bar and your written communications are more suited to texting than to business language, you probably aren’t going to be taken seriously by your new online contacts!
To prevent this from happening, clean up your profiles (or at least improve your privacy settings so that what happened in Vegas actually stays in Vegas) and make sure the language you use in any professional conversation online uses proper spelling, grammar, capitalization and punctuation.
Step #3 – Target the right people
When you network online, you’ll have access to a much wider range of potential contacts than you ever would in real life. While a local business networking event may only draw the same 10-20 people that show up every time for the free cocktails, networking online has the ability to put you in touch with professionals from around the world.
Of course, you don’t necessarily want to make the acquaintance of every single person in your industry, which is why one of the other major perks of online networking is that it allows you to laser-target only the people with whom you’d like to form new connections.
So before you start reaching out to new contacts, take the time to think about the people you’d most like to be in touch with. If, for example, you’re looking to move into a new industry, identify professionals within 2-3 organizations that have the connections you’ll need. Or, if you’re looking for a new mentor within your field, use services like LinkedIn that will allow you to search out new contacts according to existing connections and job titles.
Step #4 – Build relationships with low commitment interactions
Now, if you were networking in person, you wouldn’t immediately bully these new contacts into providing you with information on key business or job opportunities. Instead, you’d open conversations with new networking partners with a bit of small talk – only attempting to cash in on your new contact’s knowledge once a stronger relationship had developed.
The same thing goes for online networking. “Woo” the people in your online business network by exchanging messages of simple pleasantries, by promoting their digital content to your own online followers or by commenting on their most recent business blog posts (where applicable). Allow these relationships to develop naturally before you attempt to extract any type of value from them, in order to avoid alienating the connections you’ve worked so hard to build.
Step #5 – Transition your online relationships to real life
Finally, whenever possible, make the effort to advance the relationships you’ve built online into real-world connections.
Obviously, you can’t do this with contacts that are located around the world. However, if a new network member lives in your area, ask if it’s possible to meet up for coffee or for a working lunch. One of the few disadvantages of online networking is that the relationships formed through these services tend not to be as strong as person-to-person interactions, which could put you at a disadvantage compared to the real-life members of your contact’s network.
To avoid missing out on the benefits of real-life connections, do your best to move your online relationships to the offline world. Don’t be pushy, but do make an effort to get to know people away from the computer in order to form the types of connections that will lead to business or personal benefits down the road.