The word network first appeared in our vocabulary back in the 1550s to describe interlocking threads or wires that come together to form netting. It wasn’t until the 1930s that psychologists used it to describe human connections. Today it’s a universal term in business-speak, used so frequently it’s practically lost all meaning.
But when we reflect on its original definition, a complex collection of wires or threads, carefully arranged to create a net designed to catch and hold things, we get closer to the truth of what person-to-person networking is.
Networking is complicated, but you can create a safety net for yourself and others when you’re good at it. A skilled networker has access to more job opportunities, can tap into a better talent pool for their own hiring, and is more likely to win valuable referral business from clients.
In the 21st century, more and more human interactions happen online. This was true pre-pandemic, but the trend has only accelerated since March 2020. How do you continue to weave a thriving, ever-expanding web of personal connections when you’re not seeing folks in real life?
Make the Most of LinkedIn
First thing’s first: To build business connections, you must be on LinkedIn. It is the professional network.
Once you’ve signed up, build out a complete profile. Include your education, full work background, volunteer experience—leave no stone unturned.
The more you include in your profile, the greater the opportunity for someone to find a thread of commonality. It’s much easier to reach out to a stranger or distant acquaintance when you have something you can connect on immediately: “Hey, I see you went to Sarah Lawrence. Me too!”
On that same note, leave your profile open and discoverable. There shouldn’t be anything on your LinkedIn that you wouldn’t share with a colleague at a work mixer, so no need to hide. In fact, doing so runs counter to the purpose of the platform.
Don’t Think of It as Networking
Now that you’re set up on LinkedIn, it’s time to get networking. But mind your mindset. Often, when we go into a situation thinking, “I need to network,” we end up coming off as someone with an ulterior motive. Building relationships takes time, and people will bristle if they feel like you just want to use them as a stepping stone to your own goals.
Surveys have shown that, in the B2B world, only four percent of people have a favorable impression of cold sales outreach. So don’t have your first message be a sales pitch.
Instead, frame your actions on LinkedIn as genuinely wanting to stay in touch and build connections. A recent study published in Harvard Business Review found that our network of acquaintances has contracted significantly since the start of the pandemic. The research also found that all network shrinkage occurred among men; women have managed to maintain connections from afar.
The authors of the study attribute this discrepancy to the different ways men and women tend to connect. Women lead with emotions; they check in to see how you’re feeling and doing, which is particularly appreciated during a challenging time like a pandemic. Men don’t get together to talk, they get together to do things. With grabbing a coffee or playing rec league soccer out of the question, they’ve lost those connections usually maintained over activities.
Alternatives To the Sales Pitch
So the cold pitch isn’t going to work. What do you do instead?
If the person you’re reaching out to is a stranger, start by looking for that common thread. If you can’t find one, then at the very least, do your research.
When you send a request to connect, always include a personalized message. People can tell when you’ve copy/pasted the same note to dozens of people. Indicate that you’ve taken the time to get to know something about the person you’re reaching out to, and share why you want to connect with them specifically. Here’s an example:
“Hi Ted, I’ve been following your brand for a while, and I saw the recent press release about your donating a percentage of profits to the local food bank. I respect your commitment to your brand’s mission and would love to connect so I can stay up-to-date with what you’re doing!”
Short, sweet, thoughtful, and complimentary (without being disingenuous) is the winning combination. Who wouldn’t want to connect with someone that has nice things to say and likes the work they’re doing?
If you already know someone, consider staying in touch by sending an article that would be of interest. Again, be thoughtful; it doesn’t have to be business-related, but it should be personalized. Maybe you see that viral video of pandas playing in the snow at the Smithsonian National Zoo, and it makes you think of your former colleague Stephanie, who had a panda calendar tacked above her desk. Send her the video! Does it have anything to do with work? Absolutely not. Will it make her smile, remind her you exist, and create a positive association with you in her mind? Probably.
Create Content To Open a Dialogue
Beyond active outreach on LinkedIn, you also have the opportunity to share content with your network. You should take advantage of this feature. Try to share content regularly. Consider creating a mini content calendar or recurring reminder in your task management tool to keep you on track.
Also remember that it’s not just about sharing; it’s about how you frame what you share. Even if you’re resharing an article someone else wrote, don’t just post it. Add your thoughts to it. And take it a step further: Share your thoughts in a way that encourages dialogue. Say, “I read this article, and it made me think about X. How about you? Do you agree?”
Networking can be awkward. People often feel hesitant to comment on something posted by an acquaintance without an overt invitation. If you solicit feedback and respond to everyone that reaches out, you’re turning your LinkedIn page into a place where people can share ideas.
This helps you build connections in the here-and-now and makes you more likely to be the go-to person when someone has a thought in the future that they want to bounce off someone. They might tag you in a comment elsewhere on LinkedIn or reach out via DM.
When they do, that’s the time to go deeper, answer the question thoughtfully, and maybe even offer your services, if appropriate.
Our 21st century, tech-enabled lives have taught us to expect instant gratification. But networking doesn’t work like that. Weaving together interpersonal threads and making sturdy connections takes years. And with all networking, whether on- or offline, it pays to be reciprocal and generous. Build your network by building up others. Participate in creating a net that supports you and your connections in good times and bad.