Professional networks can be critically important to everything from professional growth to job security. Jobvite’s 2020 Job Seeker Nation report found that most workers found out about job openings through professional connections (31%) and friends (45%).
And while it might seem like social distancing, lack of professional events, and remote work make networking harder now, you might be surprised, says career coach Eliana Goldstein. “I think it’s one of the best times to network,” she says. People tend to have more flexibility in their schedules, and it’s easier to schedule a 15-minute phone call or video chat versus the pressure that they might feel to meet up for coffee or lunch if the pandemic wasn’t a factor.
And it’s important to build your network before you need it, Goldstein says. So, if you’ve neglected your network or it’s not as strong as you’d like it to be, now is a good time to start cultivating it. Here are some smart ways to start:
Segment your efforts
Networking is about building relationships, so thinking of your “target market” may seem a little transactional. But people are focused on making the best use of their time, especially in a remote environment, says Michael Goldberg, founder of networking consultancy Knockout Networking, and author of Knockout Networking for Financial Advisors and Other Sales Producers.
So, think about the people you need in your network and focus on those targets. “I love to suggest that a target market creates a framework around industry, profession, market segments, niche, dynamic demographic, or geography. That’s really powerful,” he says. That focus allows you to spend your time developing contacts that you need in your network.
Use the A-B-C approach
Goldberg likes to focus on the contacts listed under a letter of the alphabet in his phone. He will pick a letter and work his way through the contacts listed there. He may be standing in line or have a few minutes to kill, and use the time to call and touch base. “You reach out to people that you had a great relationship with,” he says. “What a great way to just reconnect with them. You know, ‘Hello, Anthony. It has been forever. I was just thinking about you would love to reconnect and catch up.'”
Make it a habit
It’s harder to network if you’re trying to fit in cultivating contacts sporadically, Goldstein says. Ideally, you’ll have a weekly or monthly “ritual,” or some other type of regular cadence, where you stay in touch with contacts and friends, reach out to different people, and work on meeting new people to add to your network, she says. It’s much harder to call and ask for something if you haven’t been in touch for ages than it is if you have an ongoing, warm relationship. Add “building my network” to the habits you’ll cultivate this year.
Use unexpected content
Even months into the pandemic, people are turning to social media more to stay connected. LinkedIn continues to see “record levels of engagement,” according to its most recent earnings call in October. This offers a prime opportunity to both engage with content that others are publishing and publish your own—online conversations that can build relationships—says entrepreneur and digital marketing expert Taylor Offer.
You don’t have to be a writer, Offer is quick to add. Post credible articles and information you find interesting. And it doesn’t have to be strictly professional. “You could be talking about a recipe that you like to make for dinner when you’re working from home. It could be as personal as that,” he says. “And that gives them a reason to keep you top of mind to respond to you and engage in conversation.”
Join groups and communities
It may seem like a good idea to save on professional memberships now that in-person meetings and conventions are largely on hold. But that’s a mistake, Goldberg says. Find out whether your industry and relevant business groups are holding virtual meetings, which can offer important opportunities to meet new people and connect with existing contacts. Better yet, get involved on a committee or project to forge deeper relationships.
Goldstein advises seeking out networking groups online, including professional, alumni, and other relevant groups. Facebook recently released survey findings that more than half of Facebook members are in five or more active groups. And there are high levels of affinity for these groups: 98% of people who belong to an online group say they feel a sense of belonging to that group, the survey found. So, you’re likely to be entering an environment where people feel a sense of community and are invested in creating a welcoming, useful environment.
It’s always best to approach networking relationships with a generous attitude, instead of what’s in it for you, Goldberg adds. It may be as simple as facilitating introductions with others you know. “You start to cultivate these relationships with the give, rather than the get, and because you’re the ringleader, it always comes back,” he says.