Now that face-to-face meetings, physical events, and conferences have been placed on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are far fewer in-person opportunities to meet others and grow your professional network.
Of course, technology—videoconferencing, in particular—has allowed marketers to stay in touch with colleagues and clients without having to physically meet. But there is no doubt that digital delays and distortions dampen our ability to read nonverbal and social cues.
That's not so much of an issue with contacts that have already been made, but it's problematic for people who want to grow their professional network outside of immediate connections.
Though it's entirely possible to form a strong bond without being in the same room as the other person, we must learn a new set of skills to achieve good professional networking results while using online alternatives. The first port of call for most is LinkedIn, but there are a growing number of other digital opportunities that can be just as effective for connecting with like-minded individuals, sharing knowledge, and showcasing your skills and experience.
The Pros and Cons of LinkedIn
LinkedIn is the biggest professional networking site in the world, but it's not always the best place to build meaningful professional connections. Many LinkedIn professionals say few of their connections are actually useful, according to a recent survey.
LinkedIn has evolved since its debut in 2002. Today, much like other social media sites, LinkedIn's algorithms dictate what its users see—which often results in a feed that is dominated by sponsored content, humblebrags, and posts from the same small bubble of connections.
There are still tactics you can use to network successfully on LinkedIn. The hashtags feature is a good way of seeing what people are talking about, and it presents opportunities to join discussions. Selective and careful tagging of contacts on posts and articles can be a good way to make new connections. Engaging with people on a piece of content that you or they have written or shared their thoughts on can also be a great conversation starter.
Finally, keeping your profile fresh and up to date is crucial. Don't be afraid to ask for recommendations and endorsements of your skills to boost your credentials.
But LinkedIn is only one professional networking space. There are plenty of other ways to build a professional brand and connect with others in the absence of physical meetups.
Online Profiles and Portfolio Sites
It's easy to forget that a prospective connection can just pop your name into a search engine and see what comes up before they decide to begin a discussion with you. There's a huge difference between how we present ourselves professionally and how we behave with our close friends on the internet.
Many of us could do with spending a few valuable minutes conducting a personal-brand-reputation audit. Don't let contacts come across anything that could have a negative impact on their first impression of you. Google your name and remove or limit access to anything that you wouldn't share in a professional setting. Ensure that personal accounts are set to private, and point people toward professional accounts instead in your "about me" or bio sections.
Chances are you've signed up and created profiles for many platforms and tools in a work capacity but you haven't remembered to maintain them. Be consistent across sites—using the same or similar wording, themes, hashtags, and image—to create a strong professional brand.
If you want to make a real impact, a portfolio site such as Muck Rack for content marketers, Behance for designers and creatives, or about.me for marketing consultants can provide you with a single space to pull together all the projects you've worked on. If you've contributed to industry sites or spoken at any events, include those links to demonstrate your skills and expertise in each area.
Groups, Meetups, and Virtual Events
Until March 2020, meetups, events, and conferences provided lots of opportunities to build professional networks. Since then, videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, collaboration tools like Slack, and consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp have grown exponentially as professionals seek out new ways of staying connected.
Videoconferencing platforms are great for keeping in touch with teams and clients by ensuring you don't lose that personal connection you get from seeing each other. Virtual events organizers are still tackling challenges that come with the shift to everyone going online, particularly around meeting the expectations of those who regularly attend live events. But smaller, more intimate sessions and invite-only events such as virtual roundtables can provide a way to get discussions flowing with valuable contacts in your industry.
Even breakfast and lunch meetings have been replaced by digital alternatives. Some companies offer online food delivery service as incentives for attending. And if you're looking for something more informal, there are plenty of post-work drink meetups, or om nomi, among formal and informal membership groups, where your drink of choice can be shared over some semi-professional video chat.
If you're not keen on videoconferencing options, professional networking using private messaging groups is a trend that's gathering momentum while physical meetups remain difficult. Although it can be challenging to be accepted into those groups, it's worthwhile to keep an eye out for invitations and connect with those who are already members to see whether they can introduce you. And if you can't find any, why not reach out to contacts and influencers to start your own group?
Forums, Communities, and Q&A Sites
Forums, communities, and Q&A sites are great places to share knowledge and get advice, and they also provide opportunities to network in a more meaningful way because members don't have to shout loudly or use engagement bait to beat an algorithmic feed.
Being an active member in community forums over time builds trust. They are perfect environments for forging relationships. Those who help others build up their profiles are often rewarded in part by the site hosting the content, as well, which boosts professional kudos and credentials.
If you work in search engine optimization (SEO), you're likely aware of the Moz Q&A forum. It is a perfect example of a community that rewards you for being helpful. Paid search marketers can follow #PPCchat on Twitter to join the conversation there. And if you're a Google Analytics expert, assisting others in its help community is a fantastic way to demonstrate your expertise.
Many communities have measures in place to prevent spam; they might allow only members who have a certain amount of expertise, trust, or clout to start a conversation, post comments, or link to external sources. Others are moderated and will delete posts or issue a ban if the content posted is deemed overly promotional or otherwise inappropriate. Another way of preserving the integrity of communities is making them invite-only, with a vetting process in place to check the credentials of those applying to join.
If you're going to put in the effort to join more exclusive communities, be willing to invest time and effort in being a regular contributor. Give to get. Lurkers are rarely loved.
Unleash the Niche
If you're still unsure of where to start networking online, professional associations, trade bodies, and membership organizations are one of the easiest ways in. Many have both national opportunities and local groups that have moved online in some capacity.
Each industry has had a different experience during the pandemic, and for that reason it can be hugely beneficial to seek out niche networking groups around a specific sector or challenge. It could include groups with a focus on diversity or best-practice in your industry sector; groups for a specific level of professional seniority, such as marketing leaders or marketers that work at FTSE 100 companies; or even agency owners.
Whether you decide to network by sector, seniority, or specialization, being around like-minded people who "get" you and with whom you have great camaraderie is always beneficial.
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It's looking unlikely that we will be able to meet in person for some time yet, but networking with key contacts and building your personal brand in the digital world can be just as effective when done correctly, and it will lay down great foundations for when we can meet our digital connections in real life.
In the meantime, although networking spaces are changing, one important truth remains: Like a friendship, a professional relationship requires constant nurturing and more "give" than "get." It may expose some of your vulnerabilities, but it also gives you the many rewards that strong personal bonds provide.
And, as with any relationship, the more effort you put in, the more you'll get out of it.
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