Professional Networking in the Digital Age

networking eventsSocial media is a business development professional’s dream. It’s never been easier in history to forge connections with exactly the right people. Some sales and marketing pros would argue that social media will never replace the importance of face-to-face meetings and conference calls. For B2B organizations, they’re almost certainly right.

Social media is like the largest networking event in history. Are you going to close 30 new accounts during your first hour sharing cocktails and business cards with perfect strangers? It’s pretty unlikely. However, for business development professionals with the right soft skills and the ability to correctly follow-up, in-person networking events can provide a starting point for developing new lead and client relationships.

Just like with in-person networking events, there is risk associated with using LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Quora, and other social media networks to make new professional connections. According to Syracuse University Outreach & Marketing Coordinator Dan Klamm, it’s important to note that your risks include “alienating potential allies and crushing your chances at career development.”

In this blog, you will learn some of the most critical professional and business development lessons discovered during a lifetime as a sales and revenue-focused entrepreneur. While many of the lessons may seem like common sense to individuals experienced with professional networking, you might find yourself amazed at how often these blunders can occur online:

  1. Push Yourself to Meet New People

Not everyone is a natural networker. Networking events can be the equivalent of torture for introverts. If you’re networking alongside co workers or friends, the path of least resistance is to slip into conversation with individuals you already know well. Great networkers aren’t afraid to do the uncomfortable thing, which is walking up to someone they’ve never met before and starting a conversation.

It’s easier to be bold on social media than at an in-person networking event, but you might not be pushing yourself in the ways you need to. Think of the following actions, and how they could benefit your brand:

  • Joining a new niche, vertical or question-and-answer oriented social network

  • Participating in a new Google hangout or Twitter chat

  • Setting (and sticking to) a strict policy on reaching out to new individuals or brands daily

  1. Never Make Assumptions (or Enemies)

Think someone has no value to provide to your career or organization? Think again. Ignoring individuals who don’t seem beneficial at networking events can cause you to miss out on crucial connections. Even worse, it can cause you to develop a negative reputation as unfriendly in your industry.

Making assumptions about an individual’s value or relevance to your needs as a networker isn’t just rude, it’s downright dangerous. Even if your instincts are correct and you ultimately find out that you don’t have too much in common, you’ll be better for the experience of having made the connection.

Actively seek new connections on social media. Always follow up with others who reach out to build connections with you. Within online and offline professional communities, an individual’s reputation is among their most valuable assets. Protect your reputation fiercely.

  1. Talk to Someone Totally Different

Networking is an inherently strategic game. Social media provides sales pros with the opportunity to thoroughly research their prospects before their first conversation. When meeting people offline, you rarely have the same opportunities or abilities.

However, not every exchange you have needs to be strategic. Time means money, but you shouldn’t be afraid to simply be friendly and make new connections, even if the strategy behind the exchange isn’t perfectly clear. Always be connecting with others.

  1. Take Relationships to the Next Level

If you’ve really hit it off with a professional peer while networking, adept networkers will put in the legwork necessary to take the relationship to the next level. Following the event, you’ll add the individual on LinkedIn, send a thoughtful and personalized follow-up message, and suggest ways to continue your conversation in the near future.

If you’ve nailed a new connection on social media, invest similar effort into enhancing your relationship. Ideas for extending your conversation could include:

  • Moving your conversation from Twitter or Google+ to LinkedIn

  • Requesting a 15-minute phone call or coffee date

  • Suggesting opportunities for collaboration (not sales)

  • Extending invitations for other group hangouts and events

  1. Ask Easy Questions

“Do you think that mobile marketing is going to be thwarted by FTC regulations in the next few years?”

There’s a real difference between being engaging with a new acquaintance at a networking event, and asking questions that are just inappropriately difficult. There’s also a significant difference between making boring small talk about the weather and asking the right kinds of questions.

Ask questions that people are thrilled to answer, because it gives them an opportunity to show their expertise and interests. Never venture into politics, opinion, or controversy, especially in the first few exchanges on social media. Ask questions that aren’t so easy they’re boring, but are just hard enough to get people talking.

  1. Don’t Be Obnoxiously Salesy

Can you imagine walking up to someone at a networking event and making the following statement?

“Hi, I’m Josh, and I need a job. Will you hire me?”

or, even worse:

“My photography company needs clients. Wanna buy some photos?”

You’d never do either of these things! However, these obnoxious sales pitches can occur on social media. Your brand should never ask to “work with” an organization or individual who follows you on social media. Remember, new social media connections are at the very beginning of their buyers’ journey and will need much more time to perform research, and ultimately, make a purchase.

  1. Maintain a Balance of Give-and-Take

Whether you’re on social media or sipping cocktails at a professional event, your conversations shouldn’t be radio broadcasts. Strive to maintain as much balance in your exchange as possible. Talk approximately as much as you listen, and provide your absolute full attention when you’re the one listening.

This balance doesn’t have to be absolute, particularly if you’re evaluating a new connection for mentorship or being mentored. However, ensuring that you’re always striving to both give and take value from every conversation is a best practice for business development professionals.

image credit: tech cocktail/flickr/cc