This post was originally published on BuiltIn.
With in-person networking events shuttered due to the pandemic, it would be easy to let your professional development go by the wayside. But by mastering remote networking, you can keep growing your connections.
I’ve attended a considerable number of in-person networking events. Whenever I travel for work, I often look up local events to see if any line up with my schedule so that I can attend. These events have made a significant impact on my career over the years. In fact, I met my current business partner and podcast co-host at just such a mixer. Although I’ve attended plenty of networking events, as I have spent more time living in smaller cities, I have, by necessity, started participating in more online conversations. By now, I’ve almost certainly connected with more people remotely than I ever have in person. The reality is that I’m not alone in this. A massive amount of professional networking happens online. This was the case even before the pandemic.
Over the years, I’ve regarded networking as a long-term practice rather than a short-term strategy. Though it’s typically associated with job hunting, I believe that regularly reaching out and growing your professional network will always help your career, regardless of whether or not you’re job hunting.
Although checking out a live networking event in hopes of finding a good group of people to connect with is still an effective strategy, networking remotely requires a lot more intention than that. The upside is that a remote approach also opens up the possibility of connecting with people outside of your immediate surroundings.
Best Practices for Networking
Before we jump into how to network remotely, here are some best practices that I’ve developed and learned from others. These principles hold for both in-person or remote networking.
Give More Than You Take
It’s very easy to spot the folks who are just networking for personal gain and aren’t thinking about creating long-term relationships with others. They’re usually the ones who ask for a lot but are unable or unwilling to offer anything in return. Unfortunately for this type of networker, the fastest way to “drain” a network is by only asking for help and never giving back. In the end, they aren’t truly building a network. Instead, although they may potentially gain a few short-term advantages, they’re ultimately hurting their chances of creating meaningful, long-term connections.
To create a robust professional network that you trust and that respects you and your work, you’ll need to focus on giving more than you can take. Look for places where you can make connections between other people in your network, offer knowledge when it can be helpful, and help solve problems as you hear about them. It’s a simple practice that will have a long-lasting impact.
In a similar spirit, it’s important to lift others within your network. On a recent podcast episode, my co-host and I described this process as sending the elevator back down. The idea is that, wherever you get to in your career, you should send the elevator back down and help others get to that same floor. Be sure to do this repeatedly throughout your career, not only when you achieve a certain level of success. For example, when I left my first entry-level job, I sent my manager the names of people I knew who were qualified and interested in breaking into the tech industry as replacements.
Leverage Horizontal Networking
When most people think of networking, they focus on connecting with people who have more experience than them or who are further along in their careers. If you picture a professional field as a ladder, the idea here would be to network up the ladder, as people generally assume that doing so will yield more opportunities for them down the line.
Contrary to this approach, horizontal networking means forging relationships with other people at a similar experience level. Although this sounds like it will yield fewer results, people who network horizontally are more likely to encounter peers who are experiencing similar professional challenges and can help each other.
Even better, horizontal networking also offers long-term benefits. If you start this practice early in your career, by the time you’re further along, everyone you connected with has also advanced to a higher level. You end up growing at the same time and being in more influential positions later to help each other. I started doing this myself while at university, and it has worked out well for me as several of my classmates now occupy important positions in the tech industry.
Don’t Forget About Your Existing Network
Imagine that you’re hosting a dinner party. Instead of focusing on the people in your home at your table, though, you’re standing at the door, trying to entice others to join the party and ignoring your guests completely. Most of us would never be this rude. Unfortunately, when it comes to networking, a lot of people do something just like this.
Once you start networking, you don’t need to focus on continually growing your network. In many cases, having stronger connections with a few people can be better than having weaker connections with many people as you’ll be able to more readily rely on your solid connections to help you if the need arises. Ideally, you want to end up somewhere in the middle, with a combination of connections of varying strength.
How to Network Remotely
Networking remotely and building a strong online presence feature many parallels. Although some remote networking involves showing up to an online event and meeting people, the majority of it comes from participating in the plethora of online conversations that interest you and then meeting other folks who are also participating in those conversations.
Here are the ways I’ve grown my professional network remotely over the years.
Social media plays a massive part in our ability to connect and network remotely. Although there are many social media platforms in widespread use, the two that I’ve had the most success with for networking in the tech industry are Twitter and LinkedIn.
Twitter is truly the ultimate networking platform, especially in the tech industry. If you don’t actively use Twitter, this might not be immediately clear, but if you’re able to find the communities you’re interested in, Twitter can be powerful. The culture of Twitter communities is quite open, meaning that lots of people are willing to respond to questions, engage with others, and generally share knowledge and resources.
One of the keys to using Twitter is to stay active by posting tweets and, even more importantly, responding to others. Here, the best practice of giving more than you take comes into play. Many people post questions or make asks on Twitter. The more that you can help and contribute as a community member, the more likely you are to get a response if ever you’re the one posting a question or making an ask.
One often underused Twitter feature that is helpful for networking is the list function. You can create public or private lists of Twitter accounts and see all of their content. If there is a particular group of people you want to interact with, creating a private list and seeing all of their content in one place is a good way to get started.
Although I’ve personally had more success networking on Twitter than on LinkedIn, the latter is still probably the first place people think of when it comes to social media networking. Further, some people who aren’t on Twitter will be on LinkedIn.
LinkedIn is a great place to keep track of those in your network and know when things change in their professional lives. Keeping up with people’s goings on is the core practice for the principle I mentioned above of not neglecting your current network. LinkedIn is also a great place to do cold outreach, which I’ll expand on in the last section.
On LinkedIn, similar to Twitter, the key to networking is to participate in conversions either through sharing articles or publishing posts. LinkedIn’s most helpful networking feature is that your feed displays posts on which your network has been commenting instead of just posts from people you already know. In this way, LinkedIn offers a powerful way to connect with people that your network already knows but you might not. You also have the option to write and publish full-length articles on LinkedIn, which is an asset for anyone who is particularly interested in writing longer-form thought leadership pieces.
Before you start networking on LinkedIn, here is a pro-tip. Ensure that your LinkedIn profile is appropriately updated so that people you’re connecting with know who you are, what your specialties are, and if you’re looking for anything in particular at this moment in your career.
Using social media as a tool for networking requires a considerable effort on the part of the networker. Because of its broad reach and overall effectiveness, though, I highly recommend this as the place to start for building a remote network.
Online communities have become increasingly popular in the last few years and are a fantastic place to connect with other folks in your specific industry or who have the same role as you at another company. For tech in particular, there are plenty of niche online communities.
Some online communities are well-known, like Workfrom’s community for remote workers, #Launch for entrepreneurs and makers, and #people for people ops professionals. Smaller and more niche communities might not be, though. One way to find online communities is through word of mouth with your existing live network as well as through Twitter and LinkedIn.
Some well-known communities also turn up in search results. Slack is a prevalent tool for online communities and is a useful term to include when searching. You can also find several lists of Slack communities, including this one, which features 400 communities grouped by topic.
Another place where you’ll likely find online communities is through virtual courses. I’ve taken several classes that have a community component. It’s a great way to engage with people who are interested in building the same skills or knowledge as you but who might be spread across various industries and roles.
Take the time to learn about the communities in your space. You may find that there are more than you think. Keep in mind also that if you can’t find an online community that serves your interests, you can start one yourself. Chances are, if you believe your area of interest has value as a community, others will too. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Slack, are all popular and free tools for getting started.
Over the years I’ve joined and left many communities, so it’s not about joining one but rather finding the right community for where you are right now.
Cold outreach is the most direct form of online networking. As the name implies, this method involves reaching out to someone you don’t know at all and asking to connect. I don’t recommend using this approach regularly for several reasons. Often, cold outreach is in the form of asking someone you don’t know for something that will cost them time or resources, which makes it less likely that they’ll say yes. You also need a lot of patience because many people you contact won’t respond, and you need to put in a lot of work and research ahead of time to make sure that your request is relevant to the person.
Ultimately, following and engaging with someone you want to connect with on LinkedIn or Twitter is often the best way to get results. I generally only use cold outreach if I can’t find active social media presences for the person I want to connect with or when there isn’t an existing community for my interests.
For example, I had some success with cold outreach when I struggled to find other public relations professionals who worked in-house at software companies. I faced several challenges that I was looking to overcome, and I figured others in the same position might be going through something similar. To connect with those folks, I searched for people with the same job title as me at several tech companies I was interested in, and I reached out cold on LinkedIn to ask if they’d be up for knowledge-sharing. The key to my success here was that, in my request, I was also making an offer. I know that connecting with other public relations people in-house is rare so I was offering to share my experiences overcoming challenges as well.
Note that I used horizontal networking here, and it was 100 percent successful for me. Everyone that I reached out to replied to me, and all of the calls went well. One call, in particular, went so well that we’ve stayed in touch and have since been on a webinar together.
My advice for cold outreach is to keep your message short, ask simple questions, and add an offer so the person knows what you might be able to give in return.
If you aren’t sure where to start when it comes to networking remotely, I recommend writing down a few goals in terms of the people you’d like to connect with or the things you’d like to learn. From there, narrow down your social media engagement or online communities according to those goals.
While building a professional network remotely is a significant investment, it has helped me find jobs, mentors, peers, and opened up career opportunities I wouldn’t have been aware of if I hadn’t reached out. Despite the investment, I believe it’s been worth it.