Eight years ago, Derek Coburn, author of an aptly-named book called Networking is not working, wrote a blog post that he titled: "I don't see why we have to meet for lunch."
What was then a tongue-in-cheek poke at the often-dreaded business luncheon has now become the by-default option for everyone enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the physical impossibility, whether you like it or not, of actually meeting for lunch.
It's tempting to think that a global pandemic would put an immediate stop to all forms of networking. Without huge conference halls and free-for-all buffets, after all, where is the opportunity to have a casual coffee with a potential investor, or to discreetly slip a business card to a strategic partner?
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It turns out that the opportunities to network, far from shrinking, have multiplied during the past few months. Coburn is also the co-founder of Washington DC-based networking community Cadre, which before the pandemic brought together CEOs and entrepreneurs in events organized throughout the year. From just over 75 members before COVID-19 hit, the majority of whom were based in DC, Cadre has now grown to 120 participants from all over the country and in Canada.
"We had to move everything we did to virtual," Coburn tells ZDNet. "It put off a lightbulb in my head, where I realized that it didn't matter where everyone was located. They could still get value off connecting with people during this time. So, I reached out to people, and now we've grown by 50%."
Similar observations were drawn by Russ Shaw, the founder of networking group Tech London Advocates (TLA) in the UK, who has also seen unprecedented numbers of new members joining the community during the crisis.
The removal of geographical barriers for networking events, explains Shaw, has been game-changing in enabling pools of people from all over the world to join and meet. Going into 2021, TLA's founder is already planning on sticking to hybrid events, to keep the benefits of virtual networking even once the crisis has passed.
"Things are changing," Shaw tells ZDNet. "The virtual-networking platforms we have now are good. I'd encourage people to use them and get familiar with them, because they allow you to connect to many more people. And they're not going away."
For many of us, real-life relationship-building was hard enough, and the prospect of Zoom-enabled chit-chatting will come close to the stuff of nightmares. Luckily, ZDNet has gathered expert advice on the matter to guide you through the delicate art of virtual networking. Here is a round-up of their best tips.
Join a network, and stay in touch with it
TLA and Cadre are only two among many organizations that bring members of a similar community together to network, and joining at least one or two of them is the best place to start, according to Shaw. A quick search through Google or a LinkedIn browse will give you plenty to pick from; once signed up, make sure you regularly read the organization's newsletters and attend some of its virtual events.
Stay actively engaged with the organizations you are part of, let them know what you are doing, and if you move jobs or positions, always get in touch to provide your new contact details.
Learn how to master LinkedIn
When it comes to networking, LinkedIn has always been the social media of choice. If you are not used to engaging with the platform, now is the time to curate your profile, says Karen Wickre, the author of Taking the Work out of Networking, who describes LinkedIn as the "go-to" directory for looking people up.
"You must work to make LinkedIn your own, by commenting and opening conversations with your connections, by participating in relevant LinkedIn Groups, and by adding context to your messages: why, specifically, do you want to connect with Person X or Y?" says Wickre. "Tell them in your request."
Only select the very best
Or at least, the very relevant. The beauty of having a larger virtual pool of people to pick from, explains Coburn, is that you can now make sure that you are connecting with exactly the right person. "Before, I was just doing business with people in DC," says Coburn. "If they were okay, but not really great, I'd have to figure out what to do with them. But now I'm meeting people from all over the world, and I can really stick to my guns in terms of who I want to spend more time and work with."
Virtual networking has removed many limits on who you can meet, no matter what your needs are. Make sure you hear the call to quality, and pick only the people that you have a real reason to connect to.
Do your research before you get in touch
Always assume that your potential connection will be able to tell that you don't know much about who they are, even if you claim otherwise. If you decide to approach someone, spend some time making sure that they are a good fit: learn about their business, and find out exactly why interacting with them might be beneficial for the two of you.
"We can just spend a little bit more time, energy and effort from the comfort of our pyjamas, to find people online and do some legwork before reaching out to them," says Coburn. "I think it's more important than ever not to be sending out spammy cold emails to the masses in hopes that you'll end up meeting somebody who'll want to do business with you."
Don't take rejection personally
The harsh truth is that, even if you have picked the right person, and even if you have done all the legwork, refusing to meet is much easier done virtually than it is face-to-face. According to Shaw, expect online-dating levels of rejection – and just like with online dating, don't take it personally.
"That level of rejection feels more acceptable virtually, and similarly there should be an acceptability that if you don't get connected with somebody, it's not the end of the world," says Shaw. A bleaker truth, perhaps, but which might ultimately lead to a better selection of contacts.
Remember it is all virtual
You're finally there, all set, you've managed to get a 10-minute Zoom slot with someone that you feel you could have a real conversation with. What now?
"Don't give away too much, too quickly," warns Shaw. A face-to-face conversation is much more intimate, and trust builds up faster than when you are meeting virtually. As such, you should take more time to build your relationships, and avoid exposing too much from the onset – whether that is personal details or confidential business information. The boundaries of online networking are still blurry, and it is likely your new connection will be put off by over-sharing.
Be clear about what you want
Meeting for a coffee allows for casual discussion about your surroundings, the weather, or even your commute. Not so much when you are talking online. Be prepared to cut through the superfluous details and explain in a clear, direct way what you think you and your connection have in common, and what value you can both draw from engaging with each other.
"There's likely to be a bit more purpose to your virtual chats than to friendly encounters over coffee," says Wickre. Although there is no need to write down a specific agenda for your meeting, have some points ready that you would like to discuss, whether that is getting more information about a field, understanding more about an organization or gathering advice about training opportunities.
Adopt a "give first" approach
Being clear and direct doesn't mean that you should go into a meeting with the goal of obtaining something from the person you are connecting with. No one likes to be asked for a job or to be pitched an idea during a first interaction, and even less so on Zoom. "You can't bait people with dinner or drinks in a virtual context," says John Arnold, principal analyst at Forrester.
"The best way to get in touch with new people is to become and remain valuable," he continues, recommending a "give first" approach. "'Give first' means simply trying to help people, without expecting anything in return," says the analyst. Before you brainstorm why a person might be beneficial to you, therefore, it might be a good idea to make a note of why they should care, too.
Don't let the tech get in the way
"The perfect virtual-networking interaction is inextricably linked to the technology experience and the context around it," says Arnold. Unlike a physical event, during which there is lots going on and plenty to distract yourself with, a Zoom meeting is the only event happening. This means that a lag, a blur, and myriad other glitches can quickly dominate the opening agenda.
Don't let that happen. Get to know the tools you're using and make sure you are prepared to switch an audio device or connection if the interactions aren't working out from a technical perspective, recommends Arnold. If the technology is working, you'll be more relaxed and able to focus on the relationship you are trying to build.
A first conversation over the phone or a video chat with someone you have just met should be no more than 30 minutes, recommends Wickre. More importantly, if you sent a calendar invite for a 30-minute chat, it has to be a 30-minute chat – potentially less, but definitely not more. This is especially the case if you are the initiator of the conversation, in which case you should ask if the other person has a hard stop at the 30 minute mark, and keep to it.
If the conversation is flowing well, and they have expressed willingness to talk for longer, ask – about 20 minutes in – for the green light to go over time. "But don't overstay your welcome," says Wickre.
Don't forget the rules of face-to-face networking
Say thank you, both at the start and at the end of your meeting. Be on time – even more so, because a five-minute wait is far worse when spent staring at a blank Zoom screen than it is waiting in a coffee shop. Take notes after every interaction, to make sure you remember important details about the person you are connecting with.
And above all, don't make it about you. "I suggest that a brief overview of no more than one minute be used to talk about yourself," says Marcia Ballinger, author of The 20-Minute Networking Meeting. The bulk of the meeting should be mutual dialogue, and your efforts should be focused on making it about the other person. Don't forget that you are not trying to sell yourself, but building a relationship with someone so that they can eventually become a champion for you.
Don't neglect your existing network
In fact, according to Coburn, it might be worth focusing mostly on the people you know already. The author suggests becoming an "organizer and gatherer" of people. For example, by asking just three people in your network to attend a virtual lunch, and suggesting that they bring an extra guest each that they think would fit in well, you could find yourself with a group of people meeting in a much more favorable way than as a result of randomly reaching out online.
Coordinating schedules and bringing together people who are geographically separated is much easier to do virtually, points out Coburn. "Now, the next thing you know, you've got an intimate Zoom call with five or six people, where everyone feels like they know someone there, they're more likely to let their guard down, and begin to share ways that they can help each other out," argues the author.
Don't make it a numbers game
As easy as it is to click 'send' on a copied and pasted email or LinkedIn message, virtual networking is not about numbers. "Don't ask people to connect simply because you want more connections," says Wickre.
You should not think of networking in numbers, but rather work to build quality relationships, with every encounter an engaging conversation rather than a transaction. Even through a screen, your true agenda will show – doing the extra work to make a connection valuable to both you and the person you are speaking to is the only way to eventually reap the rewards of your virtual networking efforts.