Living and working behind your phone screen or computer screen or in a virtual meeting seems to be what most professionals must do to be effective at work. We live in the age of virtual everything, and that includes networking. In my career search world, I remember when people would print out a dozen résumés, map out a dozen company offices to visit and show up in a suit to drop off their paper résumé at the receptionist's desk. Sometimes, if they were bold, they would ask for a meeting with "the manager," of all things. How many people were hired this way or made their first impression this way in the 1970s, '80s and even into the '90s? I don't think there are stats, but it’s more than you may think. A lot more.
What has happened today? Virtual networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram now carry hundreds of millions of viewers. The number of people signing up for and using these services to advance their businesses and careers is overwhelming. Unfortunately, this has led to a lot of groupthink, automated messages and cookie-cutter advice about how to build an effective business network for career advancement and career change. Even if you are in a people-facing, nonvirtual business world, to succeed long term you should get very good at and be a student of best-practice virtual networking.
Here are some of my top strategies for today's market. They're geared primarily toward LinkedIn, one of my areas of expertise, but the concepts still work and should be used on other platforms.
Build A Foundation Before The Ask
Everyone you try to connect to on LinkedIn knows you want something from them. They know the second you connect that you are probably trying to sell them something. In fact, LinkedIn has become a very aggressive selling platform, in part because of the wealth and accuracy of information about buyers available through LinkedIn Sales Navigator and many LinkedIn plug-ins. LinkedIn promotes the Navigator tool by saying, "Find the right people and companies with a search experience that delivers the most relevant prospects."
Now that you know how aggressively LinkedIn and others are using the platform to facilitate sales, you must build a better foundation with those who you need to connect to and build rapport with because the assumption is that you want to sell them something. The solution? Research your prospects, and find out where they spend their time. Look at their profiles, and ask someone you know who knows them to warmly introduce you. Do not connect and ask for something without reviewing who they are or how they would like to be communicated with. Sometimes this is as simple as a little bio research, or it may require calls to others or more homework. But do yours, and don't ask before you build a foundation.
Create An Original Pitch
After you have done your foundational homework on your connection, it is time to create a pithy, original ask. Here are your choices. Many people forget to consider all the options they have when they try to connect with someone on an online platform. I often work with my clients on how to communicate with key influencers, hiring managers and other people who they need not just to add to their connection list, but to attempt to build a mini rapport with and earn their trust. Those interpersonal skills and true business relationships can take years, but you can create credibility by how you communicate with key prospective people. That can mean well-written messages on online networks, or even picking up the phone or emailing someone before asking for a connection. To do this originally, find something you have in common, embed a key question or come up with something that makes it sound like you have taken the time to consider the reason they might want to connect with you and why it might benefit them.
For example, instead of the common LinkedIn messaging ask that goes like this:
"Jim, I see that you are the Talent Acquisition Leader at XYZ Corporation. I feel like my skills in project management would be a great fit for your company. Could we have a conversation about your company and about my background?"
Try this as a rewrite:
"Jim, my friend Jane Smith suggested I reach out to you. After looking at your LI background and bio, I noticed that not only did you win the X award at XYZ last year, but you have a talent for coaching rugby, of all things! My dad played rugby in college and still complains about why it is not a major American sport! Anyway, could we connect? I would like to know more about your experience at XYZ as I consider my next career move."
Here is the issue and problem I see within virtual networks right now: Everybody is being pushed, sold and asked for things. Everyone seems to be in a hurry to add connections and create some kind of a pushy sales model. In fact, the last several people who I accepted invitations to connect to sent me automated sales letters in response within a split second. That probably works for some people, and the world of social media plug-ins may be thriving, but it was a networking turn-off to me. I don't think I blocked them, but mentally, I did.
Why Relationships Matter Today More Than Ever
In a world of transient, transactional online or virtual networking quick hits, I argue for and work with clients every single day on creating mini win-win relationships that are built on trust, credibility, originality and care. Being creative in your approach to working and connecting with people and slowing down and leading with value will resonate. Not everyone will respond, but they will remember and notice that you spent time, care and consideration before you put your needs first.
Show up virtually, and be clever to make a great first but lasting impression.