Whether you are settling into your first entry-level role or are a seasoned professional, you don’t need me to tell you building a strong network is essential for your career — chances are you’ve already been positively impacted by a professional relationship in some way.

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Beyond having a strong professional network to rely on for mentorship or to help you land your next opportunity, connections with others are essential for our overall health and well-being.

According to research from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, individuals who self-identify as being isolated are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses or experience depression than those who identify as well-connected.

In addition to health implications, research suggests that lonelier workers exhibit lower performance, quit their jobs more often, and report lower job satisfaction. With this in mind, networking becomes even more critical in one’s quest for a fulfilling career.

When most of us think of networking we likely think of having face-to-face conversations at live events or gatherings — and for years that has largely been what networking looked like. However, it’s time to broaden our view of what networking can be.

With many live events and opportunities to connect in real life on hold, and the realities of isolation present for many, virtual networking is more important than ever. It is important to note that while there is no right or wrong way to network, there are some easy pitfalls to succumb to when connecting online.

We’ve all seen it — the well-intentioned email or request to connect that makes us cringe a little. I certainly have been on both the sending and receiving end of such a message in my career. And with so many of us relying on online connections, we have to ensure we are communicating with potential contacts effectively.

Thankfully we can bounce back from unsavory online interactions, and now is the perfect time to polish up those skills. Read on to learn what virtual networking behaviors you should steer clear from, and what you should do instead.

1. Sending LinkedIn connection requests without a message.

Let’s start off with the basics. If you are sending a request to connect with someone on LinkedIn who you have not had a direct working relationship with, always include a custom message with your request.

According to Meaghan Williams, HubSpot’s Remote Work and Inclusion Program Manager, this is something she's witnessed and made the mistake of doing herself. "Whether you’re networking virtually or in-person, an easy mistake to make is not doing enough homework to personalize your outreach and spark someone’s interest," she says.

Instead of sending a high-level question such as "I would love to learn more about your career," Meaghan recommends outlining your goals and specific questions in advance and providing options for connecting further.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment. Which request would you rather receive from someone you don’t know directly, or perhaps have only interacted with briefly:

"Join my network on LinkedIn," or "Hi Alex, My name is Les and I attended your session at the XYZ virtual summit. Your presentation was fantastic. If you have time in the coming weeks, I would love to ask you a few follow-up questions."

The second message provides context for the recipient letting them know who you are, what the two of you have in common, and opens the door for a future conversation.

Avoid sending connection requests directly from the "people you may know page". Hitting the "connect" button there automatically sends a request without giving you the opportunity to customize the message. Click the "connect" button from the individual’s profile to customize your greeting.

2. Not establishing ground rules and boundaries.

In 2020, many professionals are juggling full plates. Whether they are having to completely pivot how they do business in response to the current climate or are adjusting to working remotely in a home full of loved ones, approaching online networking conversations from a place of empathy is essential for everyone involved.

According to Sage Quiamno, co-founder of Future for Us, a company dedicated to advancing womxn of color at work, extending grace when networking virtually is a must. For those hosting or participating in virtual networking events this year, she recommends taking a moment to set ground rules and expectations early on.

"We are all trying to normalize this new networking landscape. It’s natural for survival instincts to kick in, and to expect immediate responses and action from others.

However, it is important to set ground rules before kicking off an online networking event or new partnership because it grounds everyone's intentions and gives networkers an opportunity to set goals and express the desired outcomes of the discussion."

Beginning virtual networking conversations by setting expectations and being transparent about bandwidth from both parties is a tried-and-true best practice.

3. Focusing all your efforts on new contacts.

Networking isn’t all about making new relationships. Taking time to maintain relationships you have is just as, if not more important than establishing new connections. Knowing how busy life gets, I’d be willing to bet there are some great people already in your network that you haven’t talked to in a while.

HubSpot’s Remote Work and Inclusion Program Manager Meaghan Williams gives the following advice for maintaining authentic connections online:

"One of the challenges with virtual networking is that it can be hard to continue the conversation long-term. If you make a valuable connection, don’t let distance get in the way.

You can build on that initial interaction by taking notes on the conversation, following up periodically, and trying to balance the conversation to make sure both parties are getting an equal benefit from the relationship."

As you embark on your virtual networking efforts, make it a point to reach out and touch base with contacts regularly Whether it’s reaching out to old clients to offer support, or scheduling a virtual coffee chat with a former colleague to hear how their new role is going, regularly prioritizing meaningful interactions know can go a long way.

4. Sending cold emails without prior engagement or context.

We touched on this in point number one but it bears repeating — avoid reaching out to cold contacts without providing some sort of context or doing your research.

To create a meaningful relationship with a new contact, you must have a solid foundation to start from. It’s difficult to have a solid foundation from cold emails without context or a prior interaction.

Before sending an email to a contact you have not previously interacted with, first turn to your network to see if you have any mutual connections who could make an introduction for you (another reason why maintaining relationships with your existing network is essential).

If you don’t have a mutual connection, aim to have a low-touch engagement with the new contact to establish common ground. Check out what content they’ve shared on social media and leave a meaningful comment to get a conversation started. After some low-touch engagement on social, move to email to keep the conversation going.

5. Not factoring in accessibility for virtual events.

Many individuals and organizations have been presented with the challenge of moving networking to digital platforms. Technology presents its own set of challenges, especially when it comes to accessibility.

Sage Quiamno explains how Future for Us pivoted to make their online events more accessible:

"When we think about networking we need to keep intersectionality in mind, considering who has access to and is able to benefit from the information shared through online networking tools.

At Future for Us, we began incorporating an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter into our weekly webinars to ensure we are able to provide our resources and tools to the Deaf and hard of hearing community, who are often left out of virtual offerings that rely on audible content."

When approaching opportunities to bring people together virtually, consider if the virtual space you’re building is accessible to people of different backgrounds and abilities.

6. Failing to demonstrate reciprocity.

Like any healthy relationship, there should be an element of reciprocity among your professional connections.

HubSpot Marketing Manager Christina Perricone has witnessed this first-hand. She says:

"One mistake I’ve observed (and have done myself) is understating — or not stating — the value-added for both people involved. Networking is an opportunity to gain insight, give value, and demonstrate what you have to offer.

After you’ve done the first two, it’s time to showcase your strengths and present opportunities for collaboration. We should always aim to give and find ways to benefit from the connection."

A valuable connection should have both give and take for everyone involved. As you look to make new connections online, don’t only think of what you can get from the other person. Approach every conversation considering what you have to give the other party in return.

To ensure reciprocity in your professional partnerships, Christina offers the following advice:

"Start every new networking encounter by trying to learn something new — ask the person for their insight or advice. Then, add to the conversation by sharing something of value.

Hopefully, whatever you add can be mutually beneficial for both you and the person you're networking with. If that isn't true for your first interaction, it doesn't mean that it won't be down the line. Be authentic and persistent until that opportunity unfolds naturally."

7. Only networking with higher-level contacts.

Last but certainly not least, a networking mistake you want to avoid is only seeking higher-level connections.

Meeting with managers and executives in your line of work can be a huge asset, but don’t overlook the value your peers add as well. Networking laterally is a great way to keep a pulse on what’s happening in your industry and can be helpful connections for referrals or recommendations as you plan to make your next career move.

With the right approach, you can build and sustain meaningful professional connections virtually. An essential part of the networking process is knowing how to follow-up. Check out this post for effective email templates to send after your next meeting.

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Originally published May 18, 2020 8:30:00 AM, updated May 19 2020