The pandemic has made professional networking and building rapport more difficult than ever, whether it's networking for personal career development, or on behalf of your business. With no physical industry events or conferences to attend, and meetings largely taking place virtually, it’s a challenge to build and maintain the same relationships you’d get from face-to-face interactions.
Whether you’ve been affected by job loss or furlough schemes, are feeling the impact of a competitive market, or simply trying to protect yourself against an uncertain future, networking has never been so critical. It’s become more important than ever - both personally and professionally - to strengthen and build connections.
Fortunately, there are digital alternatives such as webinars, online communities and social media sites, as well as online profiles, all of which can provide a platform to showcase professional skills, whilst connecting with like-minded people.
Building and maintaining your personal brand
‘Personal brand’ is not a term or concept that is liked by everyone, but your personal brand is essentially what others think or feel about you when you’re not ‘in the room’. It’s about finding your uniqueness, building a reputation around things you want to be known for professionally, and then allowing yourself to be known for them. Developing a personal brand identity online is about more than simply posting and commenting on social media. Consider your own personal brand like you would that of a company or organisation, and optimize every listing, profile or piece of content someone is likely to see or interact with when searching for you online.
This isn’t just important for job searchers, but for business owners - in fact, anyone taking pride in their professional reputation. First impressions count, and now more than ever, many people’s first interaction with you will be online, whether they be a prospective client or a well-respected peer in your industry.
Give careful consideration to how you want to be portrayed online. Think about the skills, qualifications and experience you’ve acquired, and the expertise you’d like to showcase. Who would be your ideal client? What would be your dream job? Work out who you need to be in front of, and the message you want to get across.
A professional brand is not creating a persona; you’re not playing a character or giving a false account of yourself online, it’s simply a conscious effort to present the best version of yourself to the right people in a consistent way.
Embrace the new rules of engagement
A smile and a firm handshake have been replaced with awkward waves and cries of “you’re on mute!”. Everything that’s familiar to us about networking has been turned on its head. Technology has revolutionized the way we interact but there’s still an etiquette that needs to be followed, whether that’s in a live online event Q&A feed or a professional online group or community. It’s more important than ever to listen before engaging. Really take the opportunity to digest what other people are saying, and consider how you could offer value to their questions or concerns before rushing to say your piece. It makes for more engaging conversation, which leads to stronger connections.
Remember, it’s much easier to read a room in person than it is online. When you know your audience, or you have non-verbal and social cues to take lead from, you get a clearer sense of how your comments will be received. Behind a screen, you’re faced with the unknown, so it makes sense to tread with caution initially.
Going beyond LinkedIn
LinkedIn is often the first port of call for those looking to network online and, with 700 million active users, there’s a good reason for that, but it needn’t be the beginning and end of your professional networking strategy. Whilst it certainly makes sense to have a presence on LinkedIn, there is discussion around the platform’s shift from professional networking to feeds filled with spam, humble brags, and sales and marketing-heavy messages.
Beyond LinkedIn, there are a wealth of other platforms, profiles and online communities in which to build your profile and connect with peers:
Online communities and forums: There are plenty of online communities based around either industries or locations, such as 'PR and Communications professionals’, ‘Senior HR consultants’ or ‘Suffolk Small Business owners.' These are great ways to meet experts and other valuable connections in your field, but they’re some of the most effective places to build meaningful long term relationships with these people.
The emphasis in communities and forums is less on shouting into a void, and more about creating a trusted space to share advice, ideas and best practice, as well as help each other with challenges and opportunities.
Naturally, the etiquette in these communities differs slightly to reflect this shift. Online communities aren’t the right environment for continuous self-promotion but better suited to thoughtful expertise and guidance, to maintain the quality and trust that’s built up over time within these groups.
Video conferencing and online events: As the world adapts to the new rules, many of the occasions we would have found ourselves networking will have online alternatives, whether that’s your usual networking group meeting on Google Hangouts, or an industry event that’s gone virtual and is hosted on Zoom. You may also find industry bodies and membership associations hold regular social events online where you can get to know new people in a relaxed, informal setting.
Virtual roundtables are also a great way to forge relationships with new contacts in a more focused environment.
While our broader lives do show signs of returning to normal, it looks like remote working and online networking are set to be a permanent fixture of our daily lives. Embracing digital alternatives for professional networking is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must-do’.
About the Author
Ashley Friedlein is the CEO & Founder of Guild, an app designed for businesses, professional groups, networks and communities who want the advantages of messaging – ease of use, immediacy, intimacy, engagement – but who also care about proper privacy, quality, legal compliance, and professional standards of support and service. It's as easy to use as WhatsApp, advertising-free and GDPR compliant.