Networking is great for small businesses. I built my company around it with the help of hundreds of handshakes and thousands of cups of coffee. It’s good news then that networking can go on, even if the handshakes can’t. Thanks to online video conferencing technology, social media and some clever organisers, there are many ways to make similar connections on the net.
This is a guide to doing just that based loosely on my offline networking guide which can be found here if you’re lucky enough to be able to network in person.
The basics of online networking
The same basic ideas and objectives govern online networking as any other type. They’re just executed in a different way.
Prepare your virtual elevator pitch and any speeches you will give, even the brief ones, including how you will target potential clients. Your preparation is even more important online and it needs to cover everything as casual chats are harder to get going over the web. Prepare a few questions to ask and topics to think about in your one-to-one meetings in case the conversation stalls. Ensure your microphone, camera and communication software works properly and you are familiar with it. Nothing is more off putting than talking to a ‘professional’ who can’t even sort out their basic tools.
Listen rather than talking. Everyone likes to talk about themselves and listeners are seen as good connections. Meanwhile, you will Learn about your connection’s business, their problems and what works for them. If you can’t hear or see the other person, don’t be afraid to speak up. Better that than miss an important point.
Help people once you have learned about their problems and their objectives. It feels good, people often reciprocate and, as above, it makes you a worthwhile connection. Helping is doubly important in these hard times – we could all do with a hand and an excuse to get closer to people.
You can take helping to the next level by helping to run a meeting. Again, it’s fulfilling and it builds relationships, but it also gives you a platform, showing potential clients your professionalism in the meeting and giving you a new basis for pitches outside it. On LinkedIn for example, you can tell your connections “I help run this great networking meeting. Why don’t you get involved?” Also, most groups are just getting used to running all their meetings online, so help is appreciated and people with specialist skills have the opportunity really show what they can do.
Why not deliver a talk? Many good networking meetings give you a chance to do this. It’s an opportunity that should be seized with both hands, allowing you to show your professionalism and, once again, put you and your business on a platform for the whole group to admire. Online, time is limited and everyone who isn’t speaking is crammed into a corner of the screen silently, so delivering a talk makes you stand out even more.
Spend time in the meeting and as soon as you can afterward following up. Arrange to connect on LinkedIn, talk or get in touch and then do so as soon as possible. Remember, busy people can have short memories. Again, this is more important and more difficult online. Time and scope for building real connections is limited on a little video screen, so arrange a one-to-one meeting after the event in order to form a real working relationship.
Networking outside of the meeting
Online networking isn’t just what happens when the cameras are on and everyone is talking into their microphones. What happens before and after the meeting is just as important, if not more so. I think it’s important to press this point, as many people underestimate the importance of preparation, following up and, perhaps more crucially, building and maintaining relationships between meetings. Start with the networking event and move your relationship beyond it.
There are generally two types of people logging to networking events. There are those who just turn up, do the requisite introduction, listen politely and then say goodbye. Then there are those who prepare and think about the event, turn up early and eager to chat if possible, and look to create lasting business relationships. Unsurprisingly, this latter type of people get many times more benefit out of networking because they know the event itself is just a stimulus for a much bigger set of interactions and a jumping-off point for a longer relationship.
A few extra pointers
We’re all tempted to dress casually when working consistently from home but do dress up when video networking. Pyjamas at noon is only acceptable when no one can see you. I don’t have to say that it’s important to look professional, but it also makes you feel good, giving you the energy to be outgoing and actively draw in those leads.
I’ve mentioned it once, but I’ll say it again as it’s important. Ensure your tools are working correctly in advance and ask again if you think something might be wrong in the meeting. Falling prey to problems you could easily have solved in advance is unprofessional.
Lastly, think about the background. While unusual settings and the occasional pet or child are all but inevitable, glaring light, pitch darkness and too many distractions are all bad ideas. A banner or other company advertisement on the other hand is a very good idea. If you’re a visual creative, you could even have some of your work in the background. Otherwise, play it safe and go for a plain wall or professional office.
On this subject, Zoom backgrounds are a popular but flawed option. These software-generated backgrounds blanket everything but you in a pattern or image that you choose. It gives you the opportunity to advertise your business, show your colours and generally look clever. In practice though, it has a touch of 80s pop video craziness about it and can look strange, not to mention the danger of disappearing or turning into a floating head, which no one wants to do. There’s much controversy over whether this type of background is worthwhile.
What do you think about Zoom backgrounds? Get in touch and we’ll see what the verdict is.
Time to get networking …
Just remember: During these difficult times, networking online remains a brilliant option for connecting your business and gaining new customers. However, a slightly different approach is needed in order to gain maximum benefit from networking on the web. You need to plan more as exchanges are shorter and more to the point, so prepare exactly what you want to say in advance. Things are generally less casual and more strictly ordered because of the needs of the web, so make the most of opportunities to chat outside of strict networking groups. Following up and generally maintaining relationships outside of meetings is even more important online as you can’t build your rapport through real face time.
Overall though, if you take the right approach, you can still gain a great deal from networking online.