Before the coronavirus pandemic, professional networking could be impromptu. You’d go to a conference and stick around for the schmoozing. You might bump into a coworker in the hallway and chat or even invite them out for coffee. The pandemic has made it harder. With so many of us are still working from home and so few of us traveling for business, the majority of networking has to be scheduled. You need an appointed time and date, method to connect, and a reason for doing so. You have to be more strategic, which can make it feel icky. No one wants to come across as a person who only interacts with others for their own gain.
Networking is not a one-way street, however, and even though it takes more planning now than in the past, you can still do it successfully and with minimal ickiness. In a world where people prefer remote meetups, and chatting casually takes a little strategy, how should you do it?
Who Should Be Networking?
Certainly, anyone can cultivate their network at any time. Recent hopeful signs notwithstanding, we’re still in an actual global pandemic, and if you’re trimming unnecessary to-dos out of your life and you’re already on the brink of what you can handle, professional networking may be something you can let go.
That said, if you fall into one of these categories, then networking is going to be a good use of your time and energy:
students and people who are first breaking into their career
job seekers, both the unemployed and the unhappily employed
entrepreneurs and business owners whose businesses rely on networking
anyone actively looking to advance or change tracks in the organization where they currently work
people who enjoy networking and have the time and energy to do it
What Kind of Networking Can You Do?
Because networking remotely takes a bit of organizing, it’s advantageous to know what kind of networking you want to do. What’s the goal? What do you hope to achieve?
Very often, the goal is to learn, form new relationships for future opportunities, or strengthen ties, or all those things at once.
Learning includes gaining wisdom and insight, as well as more traditional forms of learning, such as informational interviews. An informational interview is a meeting where you ask someone who’s experienced in a field whatever questions you have about it and their work.
Forming new relationships means cultivating your network through growth.
Strengthening ties refers to keeping yourself relevant in the eyes of people you already know so that they can connect with you when opportunities arise that might be of interest to you, and vice versa.
Standard advice in the networking world is to never ask for a job directly in a networking situation, and this includes asking to be recommended for an open position.
Who Can You Ask to Network?
You can network with strangers as well as people you already know. For strangers, let’s say you’re a recent graduate and you want to learn tips to make yourself stand out as a candidate in a particular field. You could reach out to a few experienced professionals and ask for a 15-minute chat or informational interview. How do you find these strangers? Look at the speaker lineups of past conferences. Make a note of the sources that journalists cite when writing about the field. Check the About Us page of relevant companies’ websites.
As to networking with people you already know: Acquaintances, family friends, friends of friends, are all great sources if they happen to fit what you’re looking for. If you’re looking to stay with your current employer but are interested in moving to a different department, you can ask people in that other department if they’d be willing to tell you more about what they do and how their team works.
Interdepartmental conversations can be helpful if you’re looking to be promoted in an organization or get into upper management. The more you understand how all the pieces of a business come together, the better suited you are to rising. In some cases, learning about other parts of an organization can help you do your current job better, too.
Getting to ‘Yes’
People are busy and stressed. Time is limited. When you ask someone to chat with you for 15 minutes, how can you increase the chance they’ll say yes?
1. Make Your Request Specific
When you ask someone for a favor, being specific about what it is and why they’re the right person to help you gives the other person clear expectations.
Here’s an example: “I’m a student in [such-and-such program], and I’m trying to get a sense of what skills are in demand for entry-level job candidates so that I can land my first position. I know from your [website/social media account] that you have [such-and-such] experience. Would you be willing to share some insight with me for 10 to 15 minutes by video call about what skills are most in demand?”
A specific request helps the person set expectations for what will be discussed and why, and it tells them why you think they’re the right person to help.
2. Keep Your Message Short
When you send someone a message asking for help, you must balance clarity and brevity. Provide the relevant details but keep the message tight. How tight? There’s no rule, but if you need a guide, aim for about five sentences total and no more than 125 words.
Do clearly explain your purpose in reaching out and your goal for the resulting connection. Don’t go on and on about yourself. The person on the other end of the message doesn’t need to know about all your past professional experiences. They do want to know where you are in your career now and why you chose to reach out to them.
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3. Look for Something Meaningful You Have in Common
Many professionals are more than happy to share their wisdom and experience with people who are new to the field. Beyond simple kindness, however, one reason they may be motivated to say yes to you is if you share something in common, and a best-case scenario is when it’s meaningful.
For example, if you both grew up in military families or both graduated from a small and exclusive program at an HBCU, those are unique and meaningful experiences that can affect how you navigate and view the world. Having something meaningful in common is a compelling reason this person is uniquely suited to sharing their wisdom with you, and it can nudge them towards saying yes.
4. Do the Legwork
When asking a busy person to give up their time and energy to do you a favor, it’s up to you to do all the legwork, including the following:
providing clear and specific parameters for the discussion in your request
suggesting multiple dates and times to meet (be sure to take time zones into account)
offering a few methods to connect (by phone, video call, and so on) but ultimately agreeing to whatever works best for the other person
sending a calendar invitation with all the details written clearly and concisely
preparing for the meeting by writing down some sample questions—you might even send two or three questions in advance (but no more than that, because it can be overwhelming!)
(Photo: LinkedIn Sales Solutions/Unsplash)
Students and job seekers don’t need many tools to help them organize their networking efforts. Having a LinkedIn account certainly doesn’t hurt. LinkedIn can be a great source of information when researching people to speak with. Just be mindful that some LinkedIn users can see who looks at their profile and roughly when—you don’t want to look like you’re stalking anyone.
Following people on social media can sometimes open doors, too. You might learn that you have something meaningful in common with another person by what they share on social media. At the same time, don’t comment on or like every video they post or tweet they write, as that can come off as stalkerish or lacking in sincerity.
For business owners and entrepreneurs, a contact management app or customer relationship management (CRM) app for small business is the best tool for the job. These apps give you one central location to track all the conversations you have with people and keep an eye on their social media activity as well. You can schedule reminders to follow up with someone by a certain date, make notes about oral conversations you’ve had, and reference email threads. The main difference between contact management apps and CRM systems is that the latter are typically designed to manage sales relationships.
Two examples of contact management apps are Cloze and Contacts+. Two examples of CRMs for small businesses are Salesforce Essential and Bigin by Zoho CRM.
Networking in a Remote Age
Networking in a remote age doesn’t come easily to most people, but it can be done with grace and efficiency. Always think about your purpose in wanting to network with someone, and give them specific and clear reasons they should say yes to your request.
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