These days, most professionals work with clients or colleagues across the globe — which means you’re at a serious disadvantage if you limit your networking efforts to local industry meet-ups or inviting people out to coffee. In order to develop solid professional relationships with contacts outside your immediate geographic area, it’s increasingly essential to master the nuances of virtual networking.
We all know having a well developed LinkedIn profile is important. Your profile is often the first thing people see when they search for you online. But simply amassing LinkedIn connections isn’t a panacea, or a substitute for developing strong relationships with virtual colleagues. Here are three ways — beyond LinkedIn — to connect with fellow professionals online, whether or not they’re currently part of your network.
Master proactive outreach. You could waste an enormous amount of time “networking” on social media, from blasting out tweets to posting on LinkedIn groups. Those activities may feel like work, but since your approach is diffuse, your results will likely be minimal (after all, your tweets are competing against 500 million others per day). With a targeted approach, however, you can see real results.
Don’t post aimlessly, justifying it as a “brand building” exercise. Instead, pick 5-10 people you don’t know well or at all, but who seem like attainable contacts. These may be CMOs you’re trying to do business with, authors you admire, or contacts you met briefly at an industry event but would like to connect with more deeply. Follow them on social media, and take note of which channels they seem to use most regularly (there’s no point in tweeting at someone who only checks his account every two months).
As appropriate, look for opportunities to engage with that person, retweeting their posts with your own audience, answering a question they may ask, or sharing a thoughtful response to one of their updates. This isn’t a quick-hit process; you certainly don’t want to look like a stalker and share 25 of their posts in a week. Think long-term, and strive to engage in some small way every few weeks over a 6-12 month timeline. The goal is simply to make your name familiar to them in a positive way, so that when the moment is right and you have the opportunity to meet them in person, they’ll be pleased to do so.
Attract contacts to you. Even better than targeting the people you want to meet is finding a way to draw them to you. That changes the power balance and positions you as a peer they’d like to connect with, rather than an aspirant trying to get in the door. As I describe in my e-book Stand Out Networking, you can do this by writing thoughtful articles (or creating content in other forms, such as podcasts or video) that share useful information and your point of view on a given topic, whether it’s business development strategies for law firms or mistakes to avoid when doing business in Argentina. If those topics are of interest to the person you’re hoping to connect with, they’re likely to discover them and become interested in your work.
To hasten the process, you could — where relevant — even mention or quote them in your article. This way — if they have a Google Alert set for their name — they’re even more likely to find you. (Two New York Times bestselling authors reached out to me personally, leading to a Skype chat and a breakfast meeting, after I cited them in pieces I wrote.)
Develop a “bookend” strategy to complement in-person networking. Virtual networking works best when it’s not happening in isolation. Once you’ve created “warm leads” and have made preliminary contact with faraway contacts, you can solidify your connection by advancing to an in-person meeting.
If you know you’ll have the opportunity to meet someone at a conference (the organizers often share the speaker or attendee list), you can message them in advance via LinkedIn, or Twitter if they seem to be active there, introducing yourself and suggesting a time to connect at the event. Few people are that organized and deliberate about their networking, so your message is likely to stand out.
And after you meet someone in person, you can use social media as a way to keep the connection alive, especially if you don’t live in the same area and wouldn’t have organic opportunities to stay in touch. Seeing your updates regularly in their news feed creates a sense of lasting connection and enables the relationship to progress, even if you’re not interacting directly.
Virtual networking will never replace connecting in person. But it enables you to build and maintain relationships with key contacts around the world — including even local colleagues whom you may not see every day, but who are essential to your professional success.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out. You can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.