Whether you are settling into your first entry-level role or are a seasoned professional, building a strong network is essential for your career. Chances are you’ve already been positively impacted by a professional relationship in some way.
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.
Now is the perfect time to polish up your online networking skills. In this article, we’re talking about how virtual networking benefits you and the mistakes you need to avoid.
What is virtual networking?
Virtual networking is similar to traditional networking except it takes place online. You may connect with contacts through social media, virtual calls, emails, and more. This gives you the ability to meet and connect with professionals around the world and in any industry, expanding your personal network exponentially.
You have the ability through platforms like LinkedIn to search for people with specific titles, work experience, and interests. However, it’s essential to understand the proper etiquette behind effective virtual networking and to focus on building purposeful connections.
The Benefits of Virtual Networking
Networking online has exploded in popularity — and for good reason. Here are some of the top benefits for working professionals.
1. Virtual networking is more convenient.
Networking online can happen at any time that fits into your schedule. Maybe you want to sign up for an online networking forum or take some time to connect with new LinkedIn prospects.
Either way, you can pursue these relationships conveniently, on your own time.
2. There are more virtual networking opportunities.
The possibilities are endless for what you could discover through online networks. Whether it’s a new connection or a potential job opportunity, the viral effects of the internet mean you have more access to opportunities than ever before.
3. Virtual networking is cheaper than traditional networking.
Networking in real life can get pricey quickly. Air travel to new conferences, the price of admission, and missing out on a day of work all add up.
Virtual networking allows you to connect with others in a free and easy way.
4. You have access to new geographic areas.
If you opt not to travel, you may be limited to the network you can build in your local area. For professionals working in smaller towns, this can be a barrier to career growth.
However, online networking allows you to connect with and learn from anyone in the world no matter where you may be physically located.
5. Virtual networking can be less intimidating.
It can be easier to work up the courage to approach someone via email or a phone call as opposed to walking up to them in person. Virtual networking removes many of the barriers that you may face during in-person interactions.&
Tips for Virtual Networking
Virtual networking is a great way to connect with people in your industry and build relationships remotely. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your virtual networking opportunities.
1. Be proactive.
Virtual networking requires a proactive approach. Don't wait for opportunities to come to you, seek them out. Join relevant online groups, attend virtual events, and reach out to people you'd like to connect with.
Pro tip: Start by joining a LinkedIn group related to your industry, or attending a virtual conference or webinar. Then, send a message to someone you admire to ask for a virtual coffee chat. Being proactive will help you expand your network and find new opportunities.
2. Have a clear goal.
Before you start networking virtually, it's important to know what you hope to achieve.
- Do you want to find new business leads?
- Do you wish to build your professional network?
- Do you want to learn about a new industry?
Having a clear goal will help you focus your efforts and make the most of your time. For example, if you're attending a virtual networking event to find new business leads, you might want to focus on connecting with potential clients or partners.
Pro tip: If you're attending an event to learn about a new industry, you might want to focus on connecting with industry experts and asking them questions about their experiences.
3. Prepare in advance for virtual events.
It is important to prepare in advance for virtual events, such as webinars, online conferences, and video meetings.
Start by making sure you have the right tech stack. This includes setting up the necessary technology and equipment. Check your internet connection, webcam, and microphone. Then, test the setup to ensure everything is working properly.
It is also important to familiarize yourself with the platform or software being used for the event, such as Zoom or Google Meet. Make sure that you understand how to use all of the features and tools available.
Pro tip: Have a backup plan in case of technical issues, such as a phone number so you can call in or a backup internet connection.
4. Don’t forget to follow up.
Following up with people after a virtual event, or after any other type of networking opportunity, helps strengthen relationships.
This can be as simple as sending a thank-you email or message to those you met at the event, or reaching out to individuals with whom you had interesting conversations.
By following up, you demonstrate your interest in maintaining the relationship and show that you value the person's time and insights. This can lead to stronger connections and more opportunities in the future.
Here’s an example of a follow-up template you could use:
Subject: Have you tried using [tool] for [goal]?
Hi [First Name,]
So glad we got to meet at [Event]. I checked out your website afterward and loved your take on creating high-performance teams. Have you tried using [Recommendation]? I use that framework with my team and it has been incredibly successful.
Happy to chat more about it or send over some templates and examples if you’re interested.
Again, it was great meeting you at [Name of Networking Event], and I hope to see you again soon.
For additional templates, be sure to check out this article.
5. Stay in touch with your network.
Staying in touch with your network is important for maintaining relationships over time.
This can be as simple as sending periodic emails to check in and see how things are going, or connecting on social media to stay up to date on each other.
By staying in touch with your network, you demonstrate your interest in maintaining the relationship and show that you value the person's insights and perspective. This can lead to stronger connections and more opportunities in the future.
What we like: Many online events have accompanying groups or forums where attendees can discuss the event and related topics. Participating in these groups can help you stay connected with the people you met at the event and continue learning from the event content.
Virtual Networking Mistakes to Avoid
- Sending LinkedIn Connection Requests Without a Message
- Not Establishing Ground Rules and Boundaries
- Focusing All Your Efforts on New Contacts
- Sending Cold Emails Without Prior Engagement or Context
- Not Factoring in Accessibility for Virtual Events
- Failing to Demonstrate Reciprocity
- Only Networking with Higher-Level Contacts
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 relationship with, always include a custom message with your request.
According to Meaghan Williams, HubSpot’s hybrid enablement and operations manager, she's witnessed this mistake and has made it 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 specific questions in advance and providing options for connecting further.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Which request would you rather receive from someone you don’t know directly:
"Join my network on LinkedIn," or "Hi Alex, My name is Aanchal, 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 and what the two of you have in common. The message also opens the door for a future conversation.
Pro tip: 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
Many professionals are juggling full plates. 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, she recommends taking a moment to set ground rules and expectations early on.
“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," Quiamno says.
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. Likely, there are some great people already in your network that you haven’t talked to in a while.
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 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. It’s difficult to build that foundation from cold emails without context or 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.
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
Virtual networking presents its own set of challenges, especially when it comes to accessibility.
"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. Your colleagues can be helpful connections for referrals or recommendations as you plan to make your next career move.
Building Your Virtual Network
With the right approach, you can build and sustain meaningful professional connections virtually. Be sure to start with intention. List out what you hope to gain from virtual networking. Then, create a plan to help you expand your reach.