All it takes is an introduction. A harmless greeting is how most wonderful things start. How you find your spouse, how you meet your best friends and how you land your dream job. It starts with basic human connection.

Networking, in theory, is a simple hello, but psychologically, it’s puzzling. In a study about networking, it was found that it can make people feel physically dirtier. The study went so far as to name this phenomenon the “Macbeth Effect,” after the infamous scene of Lady Macbeth scrubbing make-believe bloodstains off her hands in a guilt-ridden frenzy. 

With the new norm of online networking, the same stress is now digital, and there’s a whole new networking world to learn. Thankfully, there are some useful tips and tricks you can keep up your sleeve to make the whole process go smoother. We’ll go over how to successfully network online, from the best tools to how to use them effectively. 

Tips for Successfully Networking Online

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The pandemic has constrained networking to online-only. However, online networking and social media networking were on the rise prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. With platforms like LinkedIn and social networks like Instagram, there are many opportunities to meet new people. And these new people could possibly advance your career. 

Learning how to effectively network online comes down to using the right platforms, engaging strategically and attending the right virtual events. Below, we’ve outlined some tips for successful networking online.

1. Use Online Networks to Make Connections

Considering the amount of online content, finding the right network can seem like a needle-in-a-haystack situation. However, tapping into the right network can help focus your search. Lean on these platforms to connect with a niche that matches your career objectives.

LinkedIn

Four out of five people on LinkedIn “drive business decisions,” according to a report by Hootsuite. That means it’s highly likely that the people you connect with on the platform have some pull in their company to advocate for you, if you connect with them effectively. By building an active personal brand on LinkedIn, you set yourself up for successful connections. Follow this four-step formula to cultivate this personal brand: establish, find, engage, build: 

  • Step 1: Establish your digital presence by building out your profile. Include buzzwords and statistics that resonate with your industry. Also be sure to add a professional profile picture, which can lead to 21 times more profile views and nine times more connection requests according to LinkedIn’s reporting
  • Step 2: Find people to connect with by joining LinkedIn groups. A few with the highest engagement are A Job Needed – A Job Posted, Corporate Recruiters, Linked:HR and PersonalBrandingNetwork
  • Step 3: Engage by posting content and talking to industry influencers. Out of the 500 million LinkedIn users, only 3 million share content, according to Foundation Inc. Forming opinions and discussing relevant topics will position you as a voice in your industry. You also want to engage with the top figures in your industry by leaving insightful comments on their posts.
  • Step 4: Repeat until you amass a strong following. Optimize your profile, connect with different people and continue to produce relevant content — you’ll find that people take interest in who you are and what you have to offer. 

Meetup

Meetup, a networking platform centered around events, is perfect for connecting with local communities that represent your interests. 

The unique value of Meetup is that it isn’t solely an online service. It’s heterogeneous model involves both online interaction and offline participation. You have the ability to sift through groups and pick and choose which might fit your interests. Once you elect to join a group, you can start attending their events. 

Meetup is also ideal for skill-based professional networking. For example, if you’re learning to code and want to score your first job in the field, try connecting with people in the industry by attending a coding Meetup

2. Take advantage of social media networking

Social media started as a fun way to share experiences with your friends. Now it’s an opportunity to craft a personal brand. It has incredible reach, making it essential for online networking. 

Social media has a few unique advantages when it comes to networking. It allows you to keep on top of trends, connect with audiences in creative ways, drive attention to your work and enhance your personal brand. 

You need to be intentional about which platforms you use to achieve your specific goals. We’ll break down four social media networks to get involved in and how to optimize them for your career.

Instagram

Much more than a photo-sharing app, Instagram is a good way to connect with B2C companies and brands. 

While “DMs” are infamous for flirtatious comments, you can leverage them for networking. Start by following a brand’s page and getting a sense of what they post. Observe what you think could be improved on their page and drop them a note on your observations. This way you’re adding value, not simply sending them a compliment. 

Here’s a sample way to “slide into their DMs” professionally:

Hey, X. I’ve been following your page and really enjoy the content you put out. It’s great to see an account that [insert compliment]. 

I was wondering if you’d be open to the suggestion [insert observation]. Let me know your thoughts, and you can see my work by heading over to my page [insert Instagram handle]. Thanks!

Facebook

One of the original social media platforms, Facebook’s reach presents a huge opportunity for getting your ideas out there. With 2.7 billion monthly active users on Facebook as of June 2020, it’s a perfect stage for online networking. 

A unique aspect of Facebook is its live feature. You have the ability to shoot video live, cast it out to your audience and get comments in real-time. This is great for journalists, politicians, business leaders and entrepreneurs to share their thoughts on a hot-button topic. 

Twitter

Ideal for instant connection, Twitter gives you the chance to send out tweets and get immediate engagement. One great feature to use is Twitter threads. They allow you to connect one tweet with another to string together a narrative. For example, if you want to discuss the upcoming election and your initial tweet goes over the 280 character limit, simply break up your commentary into a twitter thread.

3. Attend virtual networking events

Virtual events are here to stay. According to Cisco’s Annual Internet Report, by 2021, video, including web conferencing, is projected to account for 80 percent of all Internet traffic. So you’ll need to get used to doing things virtually. 

That means attending virtual networking events, where you’ll likely be using Zoom or other video conferencing tools. You want to come across as professional, so here’s a quick checklist to go over before you hop on a networking Zoom call:

  • Enable computer video and audio 
  • Wear professional attire
  • Position your computer near natural lighting 
  • Put your computer on eye-level
  • Make sure your background is clean and not distracting
  • Do a test meeting before the real one 

On top of looking the part, you want to speak the part. Communicating is hard via video, especially if you’re in a large group of people and there’s no structure to the meeting. Awkward cut-offs, long silences and misunderstandings plague virtual events, so to avoid these typical video conference mishaps, be intentional about facilitating conversation. Harvard Business Review lays out five ways to successfully engage during a virtual event:

  • Engage in the first 60 seconds to hook people into the conversation. 
  • Introduce yourself early. Introductions are important. Even if you’ve been connecting through email prior to the meeting, introduce yourself formally on your first face-to-face call. 
  • Don’t hide in a large group. If the meeting has a big roster of attendees, you might feel the urge to dissolve to the “back of the class.” Instead, try to get involved by asking questions and making relevant comments. 
  • Keep it high-level unless you are asked to dive deeper into a subject. Avoid long monologues by summarizing your experiences instead of deeply describing them. This makes the conversation more of a discussion and less of a lecture. 
  • Question in five-minute intervals. Instead of waiting to rattle off all your questions at the end, ask a question every five minutes to keep engagement up.  

Remember: The more opportunities you expose yourself to, the more likely you’ll connect with career-makers. So start filling up your calendar with virtual networking events! 

4. Tap into your online network

You’ve laid down the foundation by connecting with people online and attending virtual events, now it’s time for the “ask.” 

Whether you’re asking for a job referral or letter of recommendation, tapping into your network needs to be strategic. You don’t want to burn any bridges by being overbearing, but you also don’t want to let prime opportunities slip by because you didn’t advocate for yourself. 

A general rule of thumb here is to do most of the heavy lifting yourself in order to lighten the burden for your contact. Instead of having your connection do the work to set you up for a meeting, simply ask for the prospect’s email from your connection. This way the logistics of pinning down a date, time and place don’t weigh down your connection. 

Here’s a sample email you can send to ask for some help on the job search:

Hello [Name],

I hope you are staying well. I’ve been following your work on LinkedIn and Facebook, and it looks like you are making a lot of progress with [insert project]. 

I’m reaching out as I am looking to make a career change. For the past couple of years, I’ve been doing [insert results of your work experience]. While I’ve enjoyed it, my ideal position would be [insert your dream job]. 

Since we’ve crossed paths professionally during [time you worked with this person] and you know some people in [industry], I was wondering if you had any suggestions of people to get in touch with. 

Of course, I’m happy to return the favor. My friend at [company] is doing work that falls in line with your [project]. Happy to share the contact. 

Thank you, [Name]. I appreciate it and look forward to connecting again soon. 

Creative Tips for Online Networking

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You want to set yourself apart from the rest of the workforce when it comes to networking. This takes a lot of creativity, especially with the added obstacle of online networking. Here are some tips to help you stand out from the rest of the crowd: 

  • Fill your inbox with interesting newsletters. Instead of small talk about the weather, throw out some relevant insights. Like the upcoming IPO of Asana, whose founder, Dustin Moskovitz, was Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate. Or the massive shortage of dumbbells in America. Newsletters are gold mines for these types of conversation starters. Subscribe to newsletters to cover the full scope of things going on in the world. Try some of these to start out: The Morning Brew, theSkimm, The Hustle, Vooza’s Newsletter by Matt Ruby and Tim Ferriss’s 5-Bullet Friday.   
  • Make them notice you. Take Jessica Bain as a prime example of getting noticed. She wanted to work for Spotify, and instead of sending in the same ol’ bullet-pointed application, she decided to stand out. She made a cover letter website with a theme based on Spotify. While differentiating yourself is important, you don’t want to go overboard. Be convincing, but also be professional. 
  • Cut the word “networking” out of your vocabulary. Self-talk matters in stressful situations. This study tested the effects of positive and negative self-talk during a round of darts. It found that people who were self-assured and boosted with useful self-talk performed better. While you might not be throwing darts when networking, you are focused on hitting a target. Reinforcing positivity is essential for this. So, if the word “networking” is negatively connoted in your mind, then cut it out of your vocabulary. Use the word “opportunity” instead.

Online Networking in Business School

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The benefit of a business school is that you have a built-in network. Whether you’re looking to attend business school on campus or online, you become a part of a community. 

Here are some tips for online networking while at business school. 

  • Connect with alumni. Leverage connections with those who were once in your shoes by leaning into your program’s alumni network. MBA graduates had an overall average salary of $106,757 in 2019. So, if you’re looking to advance your career, business school alumni are likely in authoritative roles and can point you in the right direction.
  • Have a mentor at your job or internship. You’ll have internships and jobs as you move through business school. Whether or not these become your career post-graduation, you’ll want to have a mentor. Your work mentor doesn’t have to be a C-Suite player. Pick someone who has a lot of passion in the industry and has an extensive network. 
  • Find your co-founder. Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss met when they were sophomores at Harvard Business School. That same year they co-founded Rent the Runway. While in business school, you not only want to network with professors and mentors, but also your fellow classmates. You never know which one of them could be your future business partner. 

Networking is an essential part of the professional experience. It doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking or awkward. Instead, it should be exciting. These introductions are the ones that’ll advance your career. 

You can also opt to continue with more schooling before you enter the workforce. Attending business school, adding more skills to your resume and getting a graduate degree can position you for success while on the job hunt! 

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Sources: Harvard Business Review | Hubspot | LinkedIn | Foundation Inc.Facebook | Cisco | Harvard Business Review | Journal of Sport Behavior | IBM | U.S. News | NPR