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How to Master Virtual Networking

For many of us, when COVID-19 hit, it felt as though we went, almost overnight, from a society in which business was primarily conducted in meeting rooms, offices, coffee shops and other social spaces, at lunch in restaurants and over a ‘quick drink’ at the end of the day, to a world where we were all either working from home or working out how to work from home.

The pandemic put an abrupt end to the normal ways of doing business and forced radical change which has altered the workscape for good. All the usual channels for networking, prospecting and pitching were unavailable.

So, how do you network and prospect when you are deprived of the usual means by which you make friends with strangers, with no physical arena in which serendipity can play its part? What does it mean for networking and prospecting when you can’t actually meet someone?

It is an acute case of necessity being the mother of invention. Or, as the behavioural economist Rory Sutherland puts it: ‘When life gives you lemons, put them in your gin and tonic.’

With the world now opening up again, it seems that new practices like virtual interactions are here to stay. After all, online networking has two fantastic advantages: firstly, its unique ability to enable you to create serendipity with millions of potential prospects. Secondly, in addition to bringing the entire world to your door, you can also micro-target and create intimate serendipity with specific individuals – you can get into dialogue with them and start to catalyse at the one-to-one level. There is a myth that interactions online lose their intimacy. Whilst it is always going to be more intimate to meet someone face to face, it is perfectly possible to create deep relationships purely online. We have all now worked with clients where the entire relationship, from first meeting to concluding the project, has been conducted exclusively online. It works.

Whether online or offline, the fact of the matter is that we are dealing with people – volatile, illogical, egotistical, emotional people – so the same rules apply. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. Remember, the cornerstone of being a great networker is not to serve your own agenda nakedly, but to be of assistance, to be of utility and help to others. Digital media is world class as a medium to let you be this.

How to engage engagingly

We think it makes sense to start with yourself. Networking online is still about building relationships, not transactions. Just as in ‘real’ life, it is not just about what you want, who you want to get to or get to know. Networks are personal, not corporate; they are not all about quantity of connections – quality is more important. And you need to be careful not just about how you spend your time online, but also how you spend other people’s time online, too.

Audit yourself:

  • Who do I already know? Who do I like? Who haven’t I been in touch with for too long?
  • Who are my top thirty deepest connections? How can I protect and deepen them?
  • What do I know (as well as who do I know)? What expertise/knowledge do I have which other people might be interested in or find useful?
  • How can I best stay informed and relevant?
    • In online networking you need to contribute to the debate, not just reach out to connect with people without offering a point of view of new information. What media tribe can I join which will top up my intellectual usefulness?
    • Tortoise Media Ltd have very well-informed think-ins on a wide range of subjects from authoritative journalists and experts which are not only interesting but are also frequented by interesting people it would be useful to get to know.
    • Politico has incisive current events and issues-based commentary.
    • The School of Life has virtual classes for self-development, and the Guardian newspaper has masterclasses across a wide variety of subjects in business and in other areas.
  • How much time can I devote to networking online every day?
  • How can I habituate my ‘Hellos’? What ratios for reconnecting: one reconnection per day and one new connection? One new thing to know and read? Like, share and comment on three things a day? Do it the way you do exercise every day. Allocate a time of day and do it for twenty minutes religiously.

Golden rules:

  • Don’t always be asking; give too. People behave reciprocally. If they notice you are commenting on their posts and sharing their content, they will be far more open to you. Even LinkedIn, which is primarily a business platform, is still a social Usually items in which people have shared something personal, given something to the community, or told a story get the most engagement. Sharing other people’s content gets you appreciated because it’s helpful. And being helpful is what makes the networking world go round, virtually and in real life.
  • Don’t be just about the work all the time. Balance the business with less serious, less earnest stuff. Light-hearted is likeable online. So share information, sources, ideas.
  • Be you, not an actor or ‘Brand You’. If the pandemic showed us anything it is that people respond far more positively to people who let their guard down. It is usually the personal, the authentic, the vulnerable that get noticed and gain traction and followers.
  • Be generous. Give knowledge selflessly. Be a ‘hub’ where it’s not all about ‘me’. Run interest groups online to discuss specific subjects people are interested in. Spend 25 per cent of your time doing things without expecting an outcome. Once you let go of the idea of input-output, serendipity can happen.
  • Try to build diversity into your network. Don’t go for identikit types: it’s not going to sustain you or bring different (and therefore useful) new thinking into your world.
  • Aim for quality of relationships not quantity. Lord Hanson, the industrial magnate, used to say ‘revenue is vanity, profit is sanity’. He thought a good management team focused on the quality of money they made (profit), not the quantity of money they made (revenue). We want profitable relationships, not just lots of them.
  • Remind yourself often that you are dealing with flesh and bone. As the supreme networking academic Julia Hobsbawm wisely reminds us, it’s a people-base not a database.
  • Just as in real life, people like online communication to be relevant to them and timely. They like people who are like them, who ‘get’ them, who can help them. They dislike selfishness, transactionalism, feeling like they are being used, abused, stalked or ignored. They won’t respond to spam, junk, overly friendly but self-interested missives, or to nakedly selling messages on the first encounter. Think of the protocols of dating, the thrill of the chase (not Tinder). Think about getting to know the person, just as you would in real life. Use virtual networks to get to know them, but do it subtly, thoughtfully, considerately and gradually, and try to be helpful or at least interesting. Never rush, stalk, be overfamiliar or overwhelm with a deluge of communication.

A new world of possibility

The online experience cannot replicate haphazard idea generation, nor can it replace the genuine human need for physical company, connection, communal experience and touch. We are social and sociable creatures. We crave connection. Enforced social isolation and distancing has taught us valuable new digital skills, made us more creative and to be more discerning about the best use of our time. This is undeniable and important, and it has reshaped our way of doing business. The future of catalysing connections will use both real-world and online techniques. If utilised correctly, online platforms offer a fabulously valuable way to spread our network and to engage more rapidly, more frequently and more efficiently. To use both online and real-life techniques for your networking and prospecting is to use the whole chemistry set – the most powerful combination there is, if you do it systematically, methodically, with flair and imagination.