Networking, like pretty much every other facet of our lives, has moved online. The ongoing threat of COVID-19 means we’re not able to meet in person, and many small business owners are trying to work out how to keep building their businesses in these strange new times.
Fortunately, online networking isn’t difficult. Making it work for you just requires knowing a few key tips and tricks. Read on to learn how to do it.
Treat it like you would in-person networking
That means showing up on time, being professional and courteous, and showing an interest in the people you’re talking to. You might be able to dress a bit more casually and not have to leave your house, but online networking is still a professional space and you should treat it as such.
Join a group
There are dozens of business networking groups out there – large, small, formal, informal, national, international, local, and industry specific groups. Joining one has a few advantages: it gives you access to regular meetings, you might get access to occasional special events, and as you get to know people in your group they’ll start vouching for you and recommending you to people who need the product or service you’re offering.
Take the time to try a few different groups. Use Eventbrite, networking groups on Facebook, or industry specific groups and forums to find out about different groups and events. Then contact the group leader or event organiser and ask if you can attend a meeting as a guest. Most groups will welcome you warmly.
Which group you end up deciding to join will depend on a number of factors. Cost might be an issue, as some groups are very cheap or even free, while others are much more expensive. The time investment required will be another issue, as some groups require regular attendance while others are more low-key or infrequent. The level of formality you prefer, and how you gel with the other members are important things to bear in mind too. I personally recommend joining a group that only allows one person or business from each industry so you don’t end up competing with people who do the same thing as you do, but this may or may not make sense for you depending on what you do.
Even though we’re talking about online networking, you might wish to pick a group in your local area so that you’ve got the option of going along in person when face-to-face events start up again.
Once you’ve joined a group, try to make a commitment to showing up regularly. You don’t have to go to every single event, of course – us business owners are busy people! But turning up regularly will help you to make connections, build your business network, and become known as a trusted person in your industry.
Use Facebook groups
I say this grudgingly as someone who is well known to hate Facebook. But Facebook groups can be amazing for networking opportunities.
Search for groups dedicated to your industry, business people in your local area, or small business owners more generally. Read the rules before you join so you don’t inadvertently break them (some groups don’t allow for purely self-promotional posts, for example, or only allow them on certain days.)
Once you’ve joined, take some time to look around and read some of the discussions. Do you like the tone and “vibe” of the group? If not, it’s okay to leave again. If you do, it’s time to start joining in. Post an introduction if that’s something people are encouraged to do. Comment on some threads. Post your own question or discussion topic, if there’s something you’d like other members’ input on.
Maintain an active presence on LinkedIn
LinkedIn is still huge, and in the era of social distancing many people are taking their previously face-to-face networking onto this platform instead. It’s a fantastic way to connect with people, continue your learning and professional development, and potentially even find prospective clients.
Therefore, make sure your profile is up to date. Write a great header that summarises who you are and what you do. Join relevent groups, connect with people you’ve worked with in the past or might like to work with in future, like posts, and comment on discussions.
LinkedIn has the highest organic reach of any of the major social networking platforms, so engaging on there pays off in a big way. The more active you are, the more your name – and therefore your business – will appear in people’s feeds. You never know if one of them might be your next big client.
The truism that you get out of something what you put in applies in networking as much as it does anywhere else. Engaging meaningfully means becoming a full part of the group and participating actively, whether you’re in online speed networking sessions or interacting on a Facebook or LinkedIn group.
Of course, we all network to promote ourselves. But you must look at the bigger picture as well. If you’re doing the equivalent of yelling “BUY MY STUFF” and then leaving, people will notice and they won’t be impressed. So, engage. Contribute thoughfully and productively to discussions. Ask others about themselves and their businesses, and listen actively.
Be more than just a mouthpiece for your business – be a person.
Follow up is crucial. If you make a good connection with someone during an online networking meeting or on social media, drop them an email or ask to connect with them on LinkedIn.
If you think there’s potential for them to become a customer or for you to do business together, give them a little more information about what you do and offer to send over some pricing options or set up a video call if they’d like to hear more.
If there’s little ot no scope for working together at this stage, don’t neglect the connection. You never know – they might need your services in the future, or they might put a good word in for you with someone in their network who does!
Keeping a relationship going can be as simple as dropping an email occasionally, commenting on their posts on LinkedIn or Facebook (when you have something meaningful to say, not just for the hell of it,) or maintaining a friendly rapport when you meet at a future online networking meeting.
Follow these tips and you’ll be able to grow your business and build your network from the comfort of your home office!