Online networking has exploded over the past few years. With so many different platforms on which to connect, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+, it’s become the easiest way to make and keep great contacts. Think about it: you don’t have to leave your house or get dressed up (although you should still be dressed if using Skype or Hangouts), there is no cost, and you may be even able to sneak in a little dinner while chatting. But there’s a trap that too many people fall into online. They tend to let their guard down, speak more freely than they ever would in public, and share things that don’t belong in a professional setting.
Don’t believe me? When was the last time someone showed you cute kitty pictures at a networking event? Yet you see it all the time online, including on LinkedIn! The truth is, for online networking to be effective, you still need to follow the same basic rules that apply in the “real world”. Social skills are still necessary, as are manners and a professional demeanour. Here are some examples of how online behavior should mirror how would act in a face-to-face setting: You still need to listen: Professional networkers know to ask about the other person first, listen closely, and ask questions. It’s no different online. When you receive a new message or connection request, it’s a good idea to respond with interest if they’re genuinely interested in networking. Even online, networking is about developing relationships, not spamming messages. Speaking of which, I’ve gotten into the habit of responding to LinkedIn connection requests from people I don’t know with a friendly message, saying, “Thanks for connecting! I don’t think we’ve ever met, so can you tell me what is was about my profile that made you want to reach out?” Judging by their answer, I can decide whether or not to pursue the connection further. Try it out! I’ve had some interesting responses! Progressive, not defensive: When you’re speaking to someone who belongs to the same LinkedIn group as you, you already know what you have in common. Now’s the time to showcase your knowledge in a progressive, positive manner. If someone provides a counterpoint, healthy debate is always welcome. But because you’re online, and everyone else in the group is potentially listening in, you may be tempted to become defensive, or try to “one up” the other person. The last thing you want to be involved in is a public argument online. It’s there forever! Even a face-to-face argument can be forgotten in a matter of minutes, not that you would get into one at a networking event. So, just as you would in person, keep your cool online. Don’t go in just to “sell”: Have you ever been in a Facebook group, where people are just posting links to their website or book? Or sending you the same links in an automated Twitter message after you follow them? That’s not networking, that’s marketing. Actually, that’s not even marketing…it’s spamming! Now picture yourself in a room of live professionals. Someone comes up to you, delivers a sales pitch, and then just leaves to pitch everyone else. How would you feel? Would you want to do business with them? Probably not. If it doesn’t work in person, it probably won’t work in cyberspace either. Respect their space: When you come across an interesting person online, it’s relatively easy to learn a lot about their personal and professional lives without them even knowing it. Although you’ll be armed with a lot of information when you finally make contact, your target might not appreciate all your research (which they might redefine as “stalking”). It gets worse if you suddenly start commenting on blogs, pictures, and updates, as well as retweeting and sharing their articles. Now apply this to in-person networking. Would you follow your new contact home? Watch them interact with their family from a distance? Show up at their door for a chat? Of course you wouldn’t. Respecting their online space is just as important online as it is in the real world. Don’t hoard contacts: Do you ever get suspicious of that person who goes from 100 LinkedIn contacts to 600 overnight? Are they just blasting out connection requests to everyone they meet? And how can they possibly nurture genuine relationships with all of these people? It’s like that guy who walks around a networking event with a stack of the 100 business cards he just collected. He’s hoarding contacts, not creating long-lasting ties. In both cases, having a couple of dozen genuine relationships is better than having hundreds of contacts, most of whom you may never speak to again. It’s like that old adage: it’s the quality, not the quantity that counts. By applying the same rules to online networking as you would at a live event, you’ll increase your chances of lasting partnerships or relationships and success. Need help with your networking skills? Call me for a free consultation. Not only will you get some pointers, you’ll be networking while you do it! Now go and give these tips a try. Let me know how it goes.