The importance of building a professional network in a digital-only era

Whether it’s colleagues, clients, partners, journalists, influencers, or peers, with very few in-person meetings since March, building and maintaining relationships with our connections is more challenging than ever. Fortunately, technology has offered a wide range of digital alternatives to help us forge and nurture relationships without having to meet physically.

Video conferencing has become widely adopted as a solution, and while it's good to be able to see the faces, and the living spaces, book collections, and wall art of the people we are conversing with, connection issues and cross-talking often makes it more difficult to read non-verbal and social cues. This isn’t a huge problem for small teams who work closely, but it does present issues for people who want to grow their professional network outside of their existing connections.

When it comes to growing a professional network, LinkedIn is the obvious choice. However, in recent years, the platform has shifted from a place to make meaningful networking connections to being very much become a ‘numbers game’. Many have chased volume of contacts as this gives the sense of a wider network and greater access to others.  

How many of your LinkedIn connections would you say you know well professionally? How many of those would you say are genuinely valuable? A recent survey revealed that almost 70% of respondents believe that the ‘little black book’ of professional contacts they actually value contains up to only 15 contacts. Additionally, the study showed that LinkedIn has become more focused on sales and marketing, while 28% stated they found it to be full of spam. Clearly, some find LinkedIn has too much noise, too much volume, and not enough value.

When looking at LinkedIn, these results are unsurprising. The platform appears to be heavily weighted toward its own algorithm which boosts the visibility of posts with high levels of engagement - which makes sense - although arguably, the sort of content being bumped into prime position in the feed often does little to add value. 

linkedin engagement

The feed may no longer be a good place to connect with these posters and post types. Ads and humblebrags all are vying for our attention.

But what about LinkedIn Groups? Are there meaningful conversations going on in them?

For the most part, sadly, the answer is no. Closed groups with excellent admins can provide a higher quality space to converse and network, but groups with thousands or even millions of members are ultimately very unlikely to provide any value whatsoever.

linkedin spam

So aside from LinkedIn, where else can B2B marketers go to expand their network online?

Back to basics

Before you embark on a journey to seek out new contacts, it’s important to take some time to review how visible you already are online, and ensure that you are presenting yourself professionally. While a potential connection is probably not going to be put off if they take a look at your holiday snaps on Instagram, what you post publicly - or even what you like and share - can put people off if it doesn’t align with their own personal beliefs and views. That’s not to say that your online presence should be completely devoid of personality or opinions, but it’s a good idea to set personal accounts to private and point people toward professional accounts in your bio sections instead.   

Take time not only to tidy up your social media accounts, but also to collate any digital assets that will help showcase your skills and experience. A personal website, or online portfolio, such as about.me, is a great place to include links to campaigns that you’ve worked on, content you’ve written, or events that you’ve spoken at, as well as pulling together your social media profiles and contact details all in one place. 

Forums and communities

Forums have been around for a very long time - in fact - since the late 1970s. In a world dominated by social media, it can be easy to forget or overlook them. They make for great places to meet people with similar interests, where you can share knowledge, and get advice. The best part about forums is that they may not look beautiful, but typically conversations are searchable and neatly organised into groups and threads, which makes it easier to join in with discussions, with the added bonus of not having to beat social media algorithms to be heard.

Becoming a contributor in these forum-based communities helps build credibility and trust and provides the perfect platform for demonstrating expertise. By investing time and effort into being helpful and generous, some platforms will even reward members, verifying your credibility and professionalism further.

moz

The Moz Q&A forum is a very active community where you can be rewarded sharing knowledge with other members

The key here is to never be overly promotional. Linking to an explainer video for the business you work for, or to a blog post you’ve penned is fine, but only if it genuinely adds value. Those who break the rules and spam community members will often be banned by moderators.

Getting into online communities can also be challenging. To prevent spammers, admins may restrict what new users can post until they have built up a level of expertise, trust, or clout. While this means it might take a while before you are able to initiate a conversation, post a comment, or add links to external sources, it’s important to remember that this ensures a high-quality, active and engaged community - which is presumably why you want to be part of it in the first place!

Niche, private groups

Events, seminars and conferences have migrated almost exclusively to a virtual setting, and this looks set to continue for some time. Although it’s good to attend, unfortunately, what is really lacking is the networking aspect - the serendipitous chat in the coffee line or introductions in the hallways. And many event organisers are still working toward solutions that can address this issue well. 

Many of these events are using video conferencing technology to broadcast to a wide audience with limited opportunities to follow up. But they can also be utilised for more personalised and exclusive meetups, such as roundtable discussions, monthly client catch-ups, and even lunch meetings can be replicated by providing vouchers for online food delivery services.

A great example of an organisation who has continued its monthly meetups is the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) who have hosted their  ‘DrinknLinks’ for members and non-members in its Greater London Group online. More casual meetups like this are a great way of bringing people together to bond over a video chat and their tipple of choice.

Private professional messaging groups and communities have also gained momentum, providing a place where like-minded individuals can share thoughts and ideas in a more intimate and immediate setting. It can be more challenging to seek out these groups and be accepted into them, so begin by looking for marketing, digital and comms membership organisations, formal and informal professional event meetups that have migrated online, or groups that focus on niche areas of marketing that you specialise in, and start making introductions. Failing that, why not host your own?

Making connections is more important than ever

We live in uncertain times, and sadly, it may be difficult to meet in person for the foreseeable future. Building a rapport with key contacts in the digital world can still be just as effective when done correctly, but to do so, remember that relationships, professional or otherwise, begin with a good first impression and only develop through constant nurturing.

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