At a glance
By Johanna Leggett
Networking used to be a fairly straightforward affair – the exchange of business cards at conferences, a business lunch or a breakfast event.
Today, networking is a sophisticated hybrid of online networking opportunities – webinars, virtual coffee dates and virtual conferences – as well as in-person catch-ups, lockdowns permitting.
The shift has proven challenging for some, says Rebecca Plant, co-founder of networking organisation The Business League.
“Some people still think that they need to be in a physical room with someone to really spark a connection,” Plant says.
“Yet, a networking event is never about landing a sale – it’s about building relationships, and that shouldn’t be dependent on whether you’re on a Zoom call or face to face.”
Graeme Beattie FCPA, partner at Worrells Solvency & Forensic Accountants, also believes that online networking has created enormous opportunity, while freeing up precious time.
“Normally, board members would have flown interstate once every six weeks for the firm’s national board meeting,” he says.
“Since COVID-19, we’ve done every one of them on Microsoft Teams, and that has meant I can do school drop-off and still be able to interact fully in the meeting.”
Expert tips for online networking
While online networking does offer a multitude of opportunities, professionals still need to know how to make the most of the technology, and it starts with the all-important videoconferencing platform profile.
“Change the ‘handle’ on your videoconferencing profile, so it displays your name and business name or title,” Plant says.
You may spot someone in the videoconferencing chat who could turn into a productive partner, or you could spark up a conversation with someone who could turn into a new client.
“If your profile displays something like ‘John’s iPhone’, then that is going to make it really hard for someone to connect with you and remember who you are,” she says.
Also, make sure you turn on your video, no matter how deep your instinct is to hide behind a profile photo.
“Video is a really confronting format for a lot of people, but the great thing about this environment is that everyone’s having to do it,” Plant says.
“The thing to note is that, on most virtual platforms, if you don’t have your video on, you will go to the end of the video display and could miss the opportunity to be seen.”
Finally, buck the online trend of “lurking”, and be a joiner.
“If the presenter is asking questions, answer them,” Plant says. “If they’re asking for engagement, or they’re putting you in a breakout room, be ready to talk about what it is you do.”
You never know, you could end up connecting with someone across the country and expanding into a new market.
“We have the systems now to take on clients from anywhere in Australia, so if we begin to limit ourselves according to geography, there’s actually a huge limit on our ability and capacity to grow,” Plant says.
The future of in-person networking
Plant predicts the best in-person networking events will be akin to festival experiences, offering opportunities that are not possible over videoconferencing.
Her business, for example, held a Festival of Networking early this year at the Gold Coast head office, overseeing 24 hours of engagement through a range of activities.
“If you’re asking people to travel to you, then you want to make sure that experience is going to be something that they’re going to remember,” she says.
“The future of networking is going to involve using technology, but never forgetting the really basic human follow-ups with people that are required to land a client or to engage and retain someone.”
Beattie agrees and says that, while online networking is here to stay, it will struggle to replace in-person networking altogether.
“I don’t think online networking will take over entirely, because I think there’s a certain amount of normalcy that goes along with actually physically interacting with other human beings,” he says.
“For me, you just don’t get that extra depth of connection online as you do in person.”
Graeme Beattie's top six tips for hybrid networking:
- Don’t be afraid to open up and share your personal life. That doesn’t mean you need to go into intimate detail, but it doesn’t hurt to express an interest in a sport or a hobby.
- Treat online networking as if you are in person. That means keeping your camera on at all times and staying engaged.
- Networking does not have to be serious all the time. If you’re not sure whether to elbow bump or shake hands, then make a joke about it to lighten the mood.
- Focus on one-to-one networking and building connections on platforms such as LinkedIn before building up to hosting webinars or more complex online networking.
- Ensure your digital presence, including your LinkedIn profile, is up-to-date and flattering.
- Adapt your networking style to your clients’ needs. If you have a client who prefers to meet up for a coffee, then take their lead. If other clients are at home, then network online in these instances.