At a glance
1. Create an online networking plan
Take a deliberate, purposeful approach to online networking to maximise the benefits. Consider blocking out calendar time to work on virtual networking instead of leaving it to chance.
At the outset, develop a simple plan with goals and objectives that includes an overarching goal, such as becoming known for offering specialist services to an industry – for example, construction or hospitality.
One objective might be to connect with a specified number of industry contacts. Another might be to get five pieces of social media content reposted by a specific date.
Block out time to review progress against the plan. Develop new goals and objectives once the initial ones have been achieved.
Look at a variety of platforms when deciding which online events and activities to attend, such as webinars, one-on-one Zoom meetings and online conferences.
It’s also important to vary the published and shared content to avoid repeating content, which can swiftly disengage an audience.
2. Start with low-hanging fruit
Existing contacts are a great place to start to expand your network. Clients, current and former colleagues, service providers, friends from school or university and even family members can be a great source of referrals.
Prosper Taruvinga, founder of digital marketing agency Livelong Digital, recommends doing research first.
“First, look for online networks, blogs and forums relevant to your work. Once you’ve found your people, follow them on social media. Create a digital environment that gives you regular updates on your network,” he says.
Relevant LinkedIn groups are a great source of professional contacts.
Find articles and online posts they have shared and liked to get a feel for the content that interests them and take this into consideration when planning and writing posts. Try to expand the discussion and debate, instead of repeating themes that have already received a lot of attention.
3. Be consistent
Connecting is not enough by itself – following up is also key. Once a contact on the target list has become a connection, send them a personalised message that shows familiarity with their interests or articles.
LinkedIn specialist Sue Ellson recommends clicking the notification bell on their individual profile or company page to stay up-to-date with their content and engage with them when they post.
Adding useful comments, provided the content is relevant, is a great second step. Ideally, each comment will be reasonably detailed and tailored to the content, making it a valuable contribution in its own right.
Creating genuine value is the ultimate goal. This might take the form of passing on information, referrals and opportunities.
You can also endorse the skills of contacts and write references for them. For content creators, don’t forget to subscribe to their channels, including YouTube.
4. Develop credibility over time
Take a measured approach and make online networking a business-as-usual activity over months or years. Don’t go too hard too soon – it can lead to a reputation for being a pest.
Ellson recommends always acting in an ethical way and make sure any actions taken are in line with your brand.
“My brand is friendly and professional, never personal,” she says.
Respond to all comments and messages promptly because responsiveness can create opportunities.
Share opportunities within your network if they aren’t suitable for you. Saying thanks for the referrals received is also essential.
5. Build it and they will come
Finally, if you don’t find your tribe online, create it. Take the initiative and start a social media group, online community or virtual forum and invite desired contacts to it.
“Create a platform for like-minded people to have conversations about the things they care about,” says Taruvinga.
Host online events and build the community over time. Be flexible about the direction the group takes.
There are many ways to network online. What’s important is to find the groups you naturally gel with and actively contribute to them over time, so that you can optimise their benefits.