When my co-founder and I founded Scouted five years ago, all we had was an idea. Without the support of our network, our company would not have grown into what it is today. While we were fortunate to have access to high-quality networks when we started this journey (from school, from work), I think it’s important to share how much effort I still consistently put into expanding and diversifying my network. It’s something I actively work at every day. No matter what stage of life you’re at – whether you are graduating college and looking for your first job, deciding to switch careers for the first time in a decade, or getting your own company off the ground –  building, managing and leveraging your network is going to be a key part of your success. Because, no matter who you are, we all need a little help from our friends.

Even though the idea of networking over coffee might feel like “the good ol’ days”, social distancing doesn’t mean you have to stop growing your professional network. In fact, with so much disruption to the way people are working and reevaluating work, it’s more important than ever to find ways to connect online, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t confusing.  

Here are a few practical tips for navigating the world of virtual networking.

Just Ask

Sometimes it’s the obvious things that are the most useful. But, when it comes to networking – be it virtual or not – often the hardest part, yes most critical part, is making The Ask. 

While it might seem awkward, or even counter intuitive to engage in remote networking during this time, we are finding that, in many cases, people are more open to forging new connections than they were before. Not only are people eager for social interaction, but there’s an ethos of kindness, community and support that people are embracing right now.

It’s tough to make the ask, but here are a few specific points to keep top of mind:

  • You have nothing to lose from asking for help. The worst thing that can happen is that people say no (which puts you exactly in the same place you were before). 
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. You will likely be surprised how open and willing others are to help you out, if they can.

But be specific

When asking people for help or for their time, be specific. The simpler and more specific your ask, the easier it is for someone to execute on it. And, equally important, make sure that you are not asking them to do something you could do yourself.

For instance, if you are looking for introductions to potential customers for your business, don’t just ask someone, “can you please introduce me to people in your network”. That requires them to do the hard work of thinking through their network and figuring out who might be valuable to you. Do ask, however, for specific introductions to specific people. And make sure to provide a blurb about what you do for the other person to share so they don’t have to do the extra work of crafting the message themselves. It goes without saying, but never forget to circle back to whoever made the intro to thank them and let them know how your conversation went.  

I can’t stress enough the value of being specific when reaching out to someone for help, especially if it’s a cold reachout. Just last week, our leadership team was discussing how Scouted could benefit from advice on how to sell our new career coaching product to enterprises. Our CTO decided to reach out to senior salespeople on LinkedIn to see if anyone was open to chatting. We ended up having multiple very helpful conversations with one seasoned executive, who was one of the early people at Paypal. During our conversation, he commented that he gets a million LinkedIn requests and does not respond to most of them. So, of course, we asked him – why did you respond to ours? He said, ‘Because it was specific. I like helping people and your ask was clear and relevant’.”

Keep communication lines open

Once you’ve made the ask, and forged the connection, don’t let all that hard work go to waste.  Keep it touch! You don’t need to have something especially poignant or meaningful to say, or even a significant update to share. Keep it simple, keep it short. The important thing is to stay in touch with some consistency (but not aggressively), so that when the time comes that you need another ask, you can do so easily, in a non-transactional manner.

And if you want to take these touch bases a step further, make them a regular commitment! See if your closest circle of colleagues and mentors wants to hold a bi-weekly virtual lunch or happy hour, where you can collaborate, commiserate, and navigate challenges together. If those regular check-ins become a touchstone for you all, you might just have the makings of a mastermind group, an increasingly popular form of peer-to-peer mentoring. As each member of the group is thinking about how they can help everyone else, the effect is exponentially greater than what is possible in one-to-one networking. 

One of the biggest difficulties people face with professional networking (whether virtual or IRL) is that we get in our heads about it. There’s no single platform or tool or strategy you have to follow to get results. There’s no silver bullet. But, with consistent attention and regular nurturing, and, over time, the strength and reach of your network will grow.

Strengthen your existing network

Now is the perfect time to go through your contacts list and check in with former coworkers, friends from college, distant cousins you once met at that awkward family reunion (or, maybe not). Everyone’s working life is changing in one way or another, and the more connected you are, the more likely you are to hear about a new opportunity. 

Remember, networking is symbiotic. When you are thinking through how to build your network, don’t just focus on what you can get out of this interaction today, or even how it might progress in the future, but be sure to focus on what value you can provide to others as well. Don’t just wait until you need help to reach out to others. Proactively and consistently offer to do favors for someone else, if you can. It’s one of the best ways to genuinely and organically strengthen your network. 

Ask yourself:

  • Can I make a mutually beneficial introduction between two people in my network?
  • Can I offer helpful feedback on the work my contacts are telling me about?
  • Can I use my social platform to spread the word about the people in my network?

Attend online events

As in-person networking events move online, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of free events you could potentially join on Eventbrite or Meetup

Get specific: While it’s worth checking out the online lists aggregating virtual events, as it can expose you to a plethora of interesting options, you probably aren’t going to get a lot out of an event for “job seekers” that’s open to the entire global public. Look for events specifically for the industry or role you’re interested in. If you’re keeping your options open, you might benefit from focusing on events that are only open to professionals in your local area. 

Make sure you actually get to network: The early days of sheltering-in-place led many industry conferences and networking events to reboot online as a pretty uninspiring smorgasbord of webinars, livestreams, and prerecorded keynotes. Now people (and a few interesting startups) are starting to figure out how to virtually replicate the experience of face-to-face networking at conferences, using algorithms to pair people with similar interests in short speed-dating-like video calls. Make sure any online events you attend give you the opportunity to actually introduce yourself to interesting people. 

Tap into your (existing) social media

The last big step you can take to improve your virtual networking is something you’re probably already doing dozens of times a day: getting on social media. LinkedIn allows users to host and join groups based around specific industries, roles, or interests; Facebook Groups is another strong option, though you’ll want to make sure your profile is ready for the professional world first.  

You should also look beyond the major social platforms.  Check out this new social professional network that has started piloting curated, virtual events. Or, take Slack for instance. Most people are familiar with Slack as a tool for workplace collaboration, but did you know that it hosts thousands of communities specifically designed for professional networking? Some channels have an application process, others are paid channels, but most are easy to access and provide valuable opportunities for connection.

Just keep in mind basic etiquette when joining these communities. Especially if you’re joining a well-established community, likely with some tightly-knit, preexisting relationships, you’ll want to respect the boundaries and know not to ask for favors right off the bat. Take the time to get to know people, support them, and contribute to the community. 

And lastly, consider seeking out career coaching 

Figuring out how to best activate and manage your network can feel overwhelming. Speaking to and working with an expert who can come in at a bird’s eye view and help connect the dots can be a productive and beneficial exercise. 

While there are numerous coaches and programs out there that can help you with network management, we highly recommend checking out Coached by Scouted, an affordable and personalized approach to career coaching. 

At the end of the day, much of networking is figuring out different ways to ask for help. And, it can feel awkward to ask for help. Maybe you don’t want to be vulnerable. Maybe you feel embarrassed that you need help. Maybe you don’t want to come off as transactional or greedy.  Well, it’s time to get over it. Everyone needs help and, perhaps even more importantly, people like helping others. I am constantly surprised by how willing people are to go out of their way to provide assistance. Now, this doesn’t mean you should go around taking advantage of others’ generosity, but it definitely means you should absolve yourself of all feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment that might have caused you to procrastinate making the ask. Once you put yourself out there, you are likely to be pleasantly surprised by what comes back in return.