When you’ve got a great professional network, you hear about good opportunities before others do. When you need to get in touch with somebody important, you have no trouble getting a warm introduction. When you travel, you’ve often got a friendly contact who can show you around or help you find somewhere to stay.
But building a strong network is one thing, and keeping it strong is another. It’s true that maintaining these connections takes work, and many of us only put in the effort when we need something from our contacts—namely when we’re looking for a job. The good news is that you don’t actually have to work that hard to keep your network alive. In fact, one of the most effective networking methods only requires writing four emails every year.
The Long-Form Email Your Career Has Been Missing
For the past eight years, I’ve sent quarterly personal updates. Every January, April, July, and October, I send out an email to about 200 or so of my friends and colleagues. It’s a mix of what I’m doing at work; where my side projects have taken me; interesting books, movies, and articles I’ve enjoyed; and personal things like travel, events, deciding to move, feelings about an election, and sometimes even relationship or dating info.
Here’s the thing, though: These updates aren’t short. My last one came out to around 1,200 words, plus photos, videos, and links. It’s taken me a long time to find the right balance between thoughtfulness, familiarity, and polish when putting an update together, and I still devote a good two to three hours toward putting each one together. But it’s been a powerful way to stay on good terms with people I care about and nurture relationships I value. And it’s been an especially useful asset during times of transition—while starting companies, moving cities, changing jobs, and so on.
I know some people might find this practice strange, onerous, or annoying. You might worry it would make you come across as fake, or could wind up feeling too much like a marketing campaign to be effective. Or maybe you’re just rolling your eyes at yet another millennial who evidently prefers to share personal information through a screen rather than make a phone call or have a face-to-face conversation. But here’s what I’d say in response:
People like getting these updates. Because I send them via MailChimp, I have the data to tell you that my list’s open rate averages about 60%, which is incredibly high as far as emails go. Only two or three people have unsubscribed over the many years I’ve been doing this, and when I’m behind schedule, I sometimes even get emails or texts from friends asking me when the next update is coming.
This doesn’t replace calls or face time. Every one of these relationships was built on the back of a lot of in-person time, and I still cherish the opportunities we have to be in each other’s company, or even just linked by video chat. But I realize, too, that my contacts and I all lead busy lives and don’t all live in the same area, so coordinating a time to connect in real time isn’t always possible. This update is like writing a letter, but at scale.
It seems like it’s becoming a trend. I’m not just this one, lone guy sending personal updates—at the moment, I’m also on the receiving end of at least three other personal update emails, send on a regular basis by people in my network. Each one a little different, reflecting the personalities and lifestyles of their authors. One of my closest friends is an early-stage startup founder, and I hadn’t realized the seed round of funding he’s been working on for months had closed until I read his update. Glad I spotted it in my inbox!
Seven Tips To Get You Started
If you’re intrigued enough to give this networking method a try, here’s what to do:
1. Figure out a cadence and stick to it. I do it quarterly. If you have a lot going on or would rather write shorter updates, perhaps monthly is the way to go. But if you’re worried about overloading people’s inboxes, a biannual schedule might be better.
2. Decide how you’ll add people to your list. This means setting a few ground rules to make sure you’re only contacting people who you actually care about and are valuable to you. My rules are that they can’t be someone I just met last quarter, and they should be someone I’d like to be friends with forever, not just for “right now.” It can be a nice courtesy to give people a heads-up to new additions before the next update goes out.
3. Don’t spam people. Make it easy for readers to stop receiving your updates, and let folks know up front that you won’t have any hard feelings if they unsubscribe.
4. Don’t be shy about promoting something that’s important to you. If you’re on the hunt for a new job, or looking for tips for your trip to Peru, don’t be shy about asking for help, advice, ideas, or connections. This is your update, and the people reading it care about you and want to help you!
5. Be humble, personal, and presentable. I’ve found that it’s really important to keep it real when writing updates. No one likes a braggart (or a humblebragger), so lay off the overenthusiastic tone. Imagine you’re throwing a house party. The vibe should be personal, and it should feel personal, but that doesn’t mean you don’t pick up all the socks and underwear you had lying all over the floor beforehand.
6. When in doubt, just start a conversation. Don’t overthink it. Your first few updates might feel awkward, and that’s okay. It takes time to find your voice and tone. All you’re really doing is conversing with people you already know. Ben Bechar’s work modeling and quantifying networks suggests that developing more connections between people in your network strengthens the overall community.
So make introductions. Initiate discussions. Ask a question or bring up a topic, then start a smaller thread with the people to weigh in. As Becher explains, “the more you make yourself a bridge builder for others, the more they will value their relationship [with] you in return.” The more connected your readers are with each other, the more likely your update is talked about or brought up with someone who didn’t open it. You end up with more people keeping you top of mind for longer. “The stronger your community,” Becher adds, “the more you gain for the same amount of work.”
7. Include some visuals. Most emails people get are about work or trying to get you to buy something. Make yours more enjoyable by including a photo or video. Just like on Facebook, people like seeing pictures of their friends!