This article was originally published in the Dallas Morning News. Read it here.
Networking is one of the most powerful ways for us to connect to new opportunities in our careers. For those of us who have traditionally relied on networking to find mentors or clients, learn new skills, or engage with people from our industry, 2020 may have felt isolating, lonely, and lacking in ways to create real connections.
Luckily, there are still ways to create meaningful connections and grow relationships in our virtual world. Platforms like LinkedIn, conferences that have gone digital, and online networking groups offer opportunities to meet the people who may become our next hire, partner, collaborator or advocate.
A caveat: Digital networking isn’t about sending cold LinkedIn sales messages or increasing the number of followers on our profiles. It’s about building real relationships with people who find value in our work and starting conversations that lead to mutually beneficial collaborations.
To nurture and grow your network in a time where we don’t get to meet people face to face, here are a few easy ways to get started.
Grow your network with new introductions.
One of the best ways to expand your network with supportive connections is to think about the people who are already champions of your career. Make a list of those advocates. Your list might include colleagues, mentors, collaborators and former teachers who can speak positively about you or your work.
After compiling a list, be direct and reach out with a personal email or call to each of those contacts. Show your gratitude for their previous support, provide an elevator pitch of the work you’re doing now, and share your goals. Ask that they keep you in mind if they hear of opportunities or make introductions to new connections. Personal referrals are not only more effective than cold emails, but you also can count on the fact that your network allies will know you well enough to send you to compatible connections.
In her TED Talk, “Why 30 is not the new 20,” Meg Jay calls the connections who are one degree of separation away from our inner circles our “loose ties.” She said most opportunities come from loose ties — friends of a friend, an uncle’s business partner, a former boss’s new client. Expanding our inner circle to include new connections is a powerful way to grow our networks.
Network in spaces where you can be different.
When it comes to networking both online and in person, many of us gravitate toward people who are similar to us. As a female millennial entrepreneur, I often find myself in networking spaces with women who are doing work like mine and with similar social media profiles and websites. Those are great spaces for me to find potential collaborators, supporters, and even friends, but it isn’t always easy for me to stand out.
It’s important to also network with people in different industries, at different points in their career, and from different geographies and backgrounds. Not only can they offer new ideas and fresh perspectives, but it’s also more likely that you will make an impression. If you’re the outlier in the room, you may have an approach that feels different, refreshing or novel. What makes you different is ultimately what makes you memorable.
For digital networking, try joining Facebook groups or Mastermind groups that are outside your typical demographic. Or, try creating content on a social platform you haven’t used before. Attend free webinars or online conferences with new organizations, and take advantage of following up with your new connections by sending them a message on LinkedIn. With everything online, now is also a great time to offer to teach your own area of expertise on Zoom to an organization or as a seminar. Teaching can be a powerful way to showcase your strengths and generate meaningful connections by giving people valuable information.
Follow up with new connections and keep relationships warm.
Once you’ve met someone new, make sure to keep the conversation alive. Send personalized thank-you notes to those who make an introductions or offers their time. Connect to everyone you meet on LinkedIn, and send personal messages with the invitations, reminding them of how you know them, who introduced you, or why you’re excited about the work they’re doing. After each email, phone call, or Zoom meeting with a new introduction, set the next time you plan to meet or the next step to following up.
Most importantly, meaningful networking is a two-way street. To build real relationships with the people you meet, you need to reciprocate in your outreach. It can be simple — offering to make introductions, sharing or supporting their social media content, or checking in with warm emails to ask them how they are.
Lastly, don’t forget to keep both your new and old relationships warm. Perhaps you had a professor in college who was a fantastic advocate of your career you haven’t reached out to in years. Or a boss who became a key mentor in your first job. These are great people to track down and reconnect with on LinkedIn. There may be an exciting way to collaborate, an introduction to make, or an opportunity you can offer one another. If nothing else, you’re creating a network filled with people who can support you in your career now and in years to come.