Thanks to the pandemic, almost every business event can be found in the virtual space. Networking is no exception. Virtual networking reaches across departments and miles to provide an opportunity for connection around shared interests and goals. Through it, you can find long-lasting connections that carry through role switch ups, company changes, and even career moves.
To get the most out of virtual networking – whether you’re a seasoned pro or new to the game – there are a few things you should know when it comes to relationship building and finding supportive spaces for networking.
I researched and pulled together top steps to create your networking game plan and built a mini-guide to assess which virtual networking events are worth your time and the ones worth skipping.
What is virtual networking?
I think it helps to throw out any misconceptions of virtual networking. It is not sending the same form message to 20 Google employees on LinkedIn to ask them what they like about working at the company. You also shouldn’t show up to a virtual conference, introduce yourself to the keynote in a chat and then cold ask them to provide feedback on your CV. It’s not a tool to single someone out, extract their knowledge, and then conduct an Irish exit from the conversation.
Virtual networking is the practice of actively connecting with others through the phone, video conferencing, or virtual events to share knowledge and develop a professional relationship. Like other relationships, this one is meant to be mutually beneficial. You may be a project manager interested in the role a professional contact has at a different company. They might be interested in the work culture of your company and potentially applying to an open role.
You each can exchange your knowledge and expertise with mutual gain. One of my most successful attempts at virtual networking work centered around following someone on Twitter with a mutual interest in cities. Through engagement and exchanging ideas, I ended up as a co-host on one season of their podcast. All before meeting them in person.
Despite virtual beginnings on social media platforms and no other ties but a common interest in the same topic, there was a mutual exchange of benefits. They gained another voice and perspective for an arm of their media strategy and I gained an opportunity to dive deeper into a niche interest.
How to build relationships
One crucial factor in this particular success is the time and work that went into building a relationship. Unless you’ve prepared a media kit and have a background in podcasting, reporting, or journalism, a cold ask to join in creating new media is probably a hard sell.
My journey, and the work of others, culminated in five steps to take when building relationships to get the most out of virtual networking.
1. Set goals
I didn’t write out “become a podcast host” on my vision board, but I did set out to virtually meet and interact with others who were talking about cities. Forbes reminds us that people who have goals when approaching networking will generally have wider access to the inspiration and change-making influence than people who don’t.
Before diving into virtual events or one-on-one coffee chats, make time to determine what you want to get out of business networking in the virtual space. Are you trying to break into a new industry? Are you on a path to a leadership role and want to learn more about other departments to better serve them in the future? Are you struggling in your role and want to learn from others who have been in your shoes?
A goal or set of goals will be critical to how you approach virtual networking from deciding the number of contacts to create all the way to the amount of time spent building relationships with each one.
2. Start small
If you’re just getting started with virtual networking or find yourself struggling to keep up connections made in the past, start small. Identify one or two contacts you’d like to reach out to – a co-worker or a connection made at an event. Send a simple message or email to introduce yourself – or to see how they’re doing if you’ve already made the initial connection. Keep your circle small as you build networking into your routine and check-in with yourself on a regular basis to see how you’re handling the upkeep of these relationships.
3. Find places to make connections
Based on your goals and time constraints, you can research where to make contacts that will lead to new connections. For example, virtual happy hours for an unfamiliar industry may be helpful for learning about potential roles before making a jump. If your aim is to gain a better command of an emerging technology in your field, you might check out groups on social media apps like Facebook or LinkedIn. You may even find the topic discussed in a Clubhouse room. If you’re building a path to a leadership role in your company, virtual conferences where industry experts are in attendance or participating as speakers could present the opportunity to chat in breakout rooms or direct messages.
4. Set your schedule
Whether it's attending virtual events or keeping up with a few key co-workers, determine where you can fit networking into your schedule. Take advantage of asynchronous communication to keep meaningful conversation going weekly or bi-weekly. Set up a recurring time for virtual coffee that acts as a checkpoint in your knowledge journey.
5. Know that goals can change
With your goals in mind and calendar space dedicated to fostering connection, you’re likely to end up meeting and exchanging ideas with a number of people. You can keep your calendar organized – and protect your time – with an app like Clockwise. As you add meet-ups with new connections and follow-up phone calls with longstanding ones, Clockwise designates focus time for deep work and protects it from other event invites. As you continue to meet with new connections, you’ll find who might be a long-term connection and who may be part of your current career season – and vice versa.
Be honest with yourself about when you feel drawn to adjust your goals and move away from connecting with others who are no longer on your path. Communicate with your connections the changes you’re experiencing and make sure to express gratitude for the gains from virtual networking with them.
Signs of a successful virtual networking event
Large conferences may provide an opportunity for networking, but networking events are specifically geared toward making connections based on common interests or goals.
You may not be able to tell solely from an event description how much you may benefit, but you can look at a few factors to determine the likelihood of successful virtual networking.
A virtual networking event can get big quickly and depending on the structure, can lose its impact. If you’re looking to make specific connections with others in similar roles, with leaders in roles you see yourself in, or with people interested in the same career path, a small virtual networking event may be best. A smaller event can be marketed with specifics appealing to others you want to connect with versus a larger event that has more umbrellas to cover more interests. Harvard Business Review suggests a group size of eight for events, but understand that a larger event with breakout sessions composed of smaller groups can also create a more intimate experience to forge connections.
You can also evaluate the potential benefits of a virtual networking event based on its theme. Is it a monthly book club centered on authors providing leadership advice? Is it a virtual happy hour for software devs working at start-ups? A virtual networking event with a theme – however broad or narrow – will help you assess how it might fit with your networking goal(s).
To evaluate the format of a virtual networking event, first ask yourself how the event is conducive to making connections. Is it set up as a Zoom Q&A with a keynote or between participants? Is there a moderated discussion on your topic of interest with an industry expert? Is it a speed dating-style format where you can chat with a number of potential connections in one event? If you have trouble speaking up in a crowd, a more intimate format like speed networking may work best for you. If your goal is to simply learn more about an industry or technology, you might gain more from an event with a keynote speaker and a healthy amount of Q&A time.
A great virtual networking event will help you make connections beyond the event itself. Connecting attendees through an online group set in Facebook or another platform is one way that a great event helps support networking. Gathering biographies and contact information in registrations to share with all attendees is another sign that the event will help you find connections outside of the conference, meet-up, etc.
Why you need to network
Adding networking to an already busy work schedule can seem frivolous. You may not have a space on your yearly review form to talk about all the new friends you made at a virtual networking book club event. Sometimes, the fruits of your networking efforts have little impact on your current workplace and more impact on your own career trajectory.
Looming deadlines and packed project timelines make the concept of working on a future part of your career laughable. But when you meet those deadlines and wrap up those projects, you still have to contend with where you want to take your career. Many people find comfort in doing their job very well and simply maintaining good rapport with colleagues and managers around them. But even maintaining your current professional network requires some forethought and action. Then there are many people still trying to figure out who they want to be when they grow up. They’re constantly seeking knowledge and understanding of new topics, new roles, and new ways of thinking about their industry.
Your networking journey may cement your commitment to a role or company while giving you more knowledge and tools to do your job well. It may also bring you to the conclusion that you’re in the wrong role or even the wrong field before leading you down a path of discovery and knowledge-gathering before ultimately changing your career. You also never know how your unique path may open someone else’s eyes to new possibilities. These are all important reasons to push hesitation aside and make time to network.
In a world supporting in-person, virtual and hybrid interactions, networking opportunities are ever-present. In virtual networking, you can find many of the benefits of in-person connections with less worry about travel time, location proximity, and even national borders. Virtual networking doesn’t just happen, though. Planning and forethought are required and your schedule will have to make room next to the mission critical work that fills your days. But virtual networking and making connections based on your goals and mutual benefits can bring growth not only professionally, but personally, as you expand your mind to hold experiences borne by others.