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Networking is the key to landing your dream job and advancing your career. When done correctly, it can help you stand out in a flood of eager applicants or even learn about available positions that aren’t posted.

Though in-person networking is still crucial, more professional connections are being made on social media, email, and other online channels than ever before.

Here are a few fundamental do’s and don’ts for online networking to help make sure you’re putting your best foot forward.

The Must Do’s:

  1. Make sure your social profiles are up-to-date

This is the very first step that should absolutely be done before you begin making connections. Go through any online space that you plan on using for networking, including LinkedIn, AngelList, Monster, and others to make sure that your profiles are current.

Depending on what your goals are, this can be a pretty extensive step. But at a minimum, there are a few things you should address.

First, your profile picture should be professional and your location up-to-date. Next, check that your headline is relevant and attention grabbing. Finally, spend a little time creating a strong professional summary. This should be an expansion of what’s in your headline and should include information on your past experience as well as your future goals.

Last but not least, don’t forget to do a quick spell check to eliminate any typos!

  1. Get to the point

Once you have your online profiles updated, it’s time to start reaching out to potential connections. It’s incredibly important for your messages to be short and sweet. In fact, most outreach emails can be done in two to three short paragraphs.

It’s ok to live on the edge here a little bit and get a creative. Often, creativity is what will get you noticed. But you should always be sure to include the following:

  • Provide a brief introduction of yourself. This should be done in no more than two sentences. Save your life’s story for another time.
  • Mention a commonality that you share. Maybe you graduated from the same university, have a mutual friend, or both participate in an organization. Whatever the commonality is, call it out.
  • Clearly state the reason you’re reaching out and your preferred call to action. Don’t leave them guessing what you’d like from them.

3. Connect with local people

Online professional networks like LinkedIn have forever changed the networking game. You’re no longer confined to networking with professionals within your own city, state, or even country. Tools like Skype and Google Hangouts even allow you to have “face-to-face” meetings with someone on the other side of the world. The sky’s the limit.

So it may sound surprising to hear an emphasis on making local connections. But this is still important, especially when you’re first getting started. Digital tools haven’t replaced in-person connections and, people are more likely to connect, not to mention agree to meet with you, if you’re close by. Also, establishing a solid local network upfront can help you to build up the number of  quality contacts you make.

4. Value quality over quantity

It’s easy to get drawn into metrics like the number of connections you have, especially when you’re just on the cusp of having an “All Star” profile on LinkedIn. But can most of the connections you’re making even really help you? When it comes to online networking, quality beats quantity.

Instead, try making connections with key people in your company or industry who can provide guidance, assistance, or recommendations. Find a top manager in your company whom you can discuss your career goals with. Connect with an influencer you admire who may be able to act as a mentor to you. Identify people in roles similar to yours who may be able to identify with your frustrations and provide recommendations.

5. Return the favor

Remember that networking is a two way street. If you want an important connection to respond to you, then you need to find a way to demonstrate value to them. This can be intimidating to someone just starting out who doesn’t have a lot of experience under their belt. But there are still creative ways for you to provide value.

Try sharing an article you think they may find interesting. Even better, provide unique feedback and additional insight onto something they’ve recently published. You can also try offering up your time at no cost, such as volunteering to help with a non-profit organization they’re closely involved with.

The Absolute Don’ts:

  1. Forget to follow up

Many of the people you’ll be reaching out to are busy. It may take them time for them to get back to you or your initial message could get lost in the shuffle altogether. When this happens, it’s important that you follow up.

Try putting together a really quick email mentioning that you’re just “following up on your earlier message”. In a few short sentences, provide a quick recap of what your original message said, why you’re reaching out to them, and what you’re hoping to see from then.

You can also try a few other subtle tactics to stay top-of-mind. For instance, make sure to connect with them on LinkedIn so they can see any updates you make, such as sharing new content. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out about special occasions that you see online. Wish them Happy Birthday or congratulate them on their latest promotion.

  1. Be too pushy

While following up is important, there is such a thing as being too pushy. If you don’t hear back from them immediately, don’t go straight to the follow up email. Wait at least a few days or even a week before you take any follow up steps.

Also, be sure to limit the number of follow up attempts you make. Avoid sending multiple emails or making multiple phone calls. You definitely don’t want them to feel like you’re harassing them.

Finally, if you’re unsuccessful in making a connection, remain gracious. Don’t attempt to talk poorly about them to another connection. You never want to burn a bridge.

3. Get too personal

With social media sites like Facebook and Twitter moving into the professional networking space, the lines between professional and personal can sometimes get a little blurry. Remember that you’re trying to make professional connections and act accordingly.

A general rule of thumb is to avoid conversation surrounding your personal life with a potential connection unless it directly relates to a job you’re interested in or the person you’re reaching out to.

Over time this can change, especially when it comes to mentor relationships and will depend on the relationship itself. But for starters, play it safe and stick to professional talk.

4. Use canned messages

Though you want to be sure to include standard information, such as who you are and why you’re reaching out, it’s important to avoid canned messages.

If someone feels like they are just part of a long list of professionals you’re reaching out to, they’re less likely to respond to you. You have a much better chance to getting a response with a creative, thoughtful and personalized outreach message.

Try including personalized details in your messages. Have you met this person before? Mention how you really enjoyed meeting them and are looking forward to getting to know them better.

Do you have a mutual friend? Mention their name. Find a way to show that you’re looking to make a meaningful connection.

5. Hide behind your screen

Online channels are a great place to start making professional connections. But they can’t be the only place you network.

Don’t be afraid to blend online tactics like LinkedIn and email with in-person professional meetings. Ask if they’re willing to meet you for a quick cup of coffee or invite them to attend a professional event you’re planning on going to.

Online networking is an essential activity for gaining new opportunities and expanding your professional horizons. By following these simple do’s and don’ts, you’ll be one step closer to forming a solid and valuable professional network.

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