How to Network Online During COVID-19 by Dillon Zwick, TMA Central Texas
People want to connect now more than ever! Working from home has created a great deal of isolation and monotony in people’s lives that has them yearning for connection. According to the New York Times, pollsters, who normally struggle to get people on the phone, have seen a 25% increase in response rates. I can attest that my personal response rate has easily increased 10-15%.
Networking online provides an avenue to break isolation and give us the connection we want and need. The key to networking online is to recreate the serendipity and intentionality that exists in physical space. Here are seven strategies to connect with people online during the pandemic.
1. The Direct Approach
The easiest way to network online is to do what you may already be doing. The professional organizations that have in person networking events also have digital directories with all their members. These directories are gold mines, and often worth the cost of membership by themselves. Find the people you're interested in meeting and cold email them. Explain the mutual connection of being part of the same group, provide a one to two sentence explanation of what you do and why you should connect, and then ask for a phone call or Zoom. Pretty simple. My response rate hovers around 35-50% since the start of the crisis. This is a great use of time when compared to the 10-20% response rate that I would get cold contacting people through LinkedIn.
2. The Never Ending Online Networking Event
In a similar vein, you can take the in person networking experience online through the use of LinkedIn Groups. I serve on both the Association of Corporate Growth (ACG) and Turnaround Management Association (TMA) boards in Central Texas. Both organizations have active groups, ACG at the chapter level and TMA at the global level. Additionally, there are non-organizational groups based on interest that are a great way to meet new people. My favorites include: ‘Turnaround, Restructuring & Distressed Debt’, ‘Dealflow Source Network’, and ‘Private Equity, M&A, and Venture Capital Investments’. It isn’t enough to just join these groups, you have to become an active participant. Like, comment, and share content. If you’ve interacted with someone and want to meet them, send them a direct message and turn that into a phone call. While adding random people on LinkedIn is useless, turning those people into connections is valuable.
3. Attend online happy hours
Different organizations, including ACG and TMA, are hosting Zoom happy hours. And no, they are not 40 talking heads on a screen at once. Zoom allows moderators to create break out rooms of 4-5 people each which rotate every 10 minutes. Each time I walk away with 6-10 new contacts to follow up with later over the phone. A benefit of being online means that you’re not limited to your home town, you can attend these all over the US.
4. The Serendipitous Approach
If you want to fully embrace serendipity, networking applications like TMA Connect and Lunch Club will pair you with other professionals looking to connect. In order for these apps to provide value, you’ll have to take the time to fill out your profile and tinker with the connection criteria until you start getting matched with who you’re looking for. Anyone who has tried online dating knows that it might take a fews tries to get the right matches, but it is well worth the time.
5. Flip the Script
Instead of being proactive and reaching out to people, create situations where people reach out to you. Writing articles and public speaking in the form of webinars are a way to network at scale. You reach more people at once, while getting your message into the digital world. Demonstrating expertise in your field will help position you as a thought leader while encouraging people to reach out to you. Also, reach out to people who are in webinars, they are generally interested in meeting, just like you. Don’t forget to make yourself accessible by putting your email and phone number in your LinkedIn profile so that people can contact you outside of the LinkedIn application. Many times I have wanted to contact someone only to have run out of LinkedIn InMail messages and they provided no alternate contact information.
6. Become a Super Connector: Expand the Map
You might be familiar with Dr. Stanley Milgram’s six degrees of separation experiment where he got a few hundred Nebraskans to send a package to an anonymous stockbroker in Boston. The instructions were to forward the package to someone they knew on a first name basis, who had a higher chance of knowing the intended recipient. What is usually remembered is it took, on average, six connections for the package to reach its destination. What is often forgotten is that a majority of those packages passed through the same 3 hands along the way. Those individuals were the “gatekeepers” between cities. Since the start of the pandemic my network has grown in reach from regional, to statewide, to national in scope. The best part about connecting across borders is that you get to bring your network with you. While many people’s range of influence doesn’t extend outside of their local market, many capital and service providers are interested in entering those very locales. I get to add value to even my best connected relationships by connecting them to people in other parts of the US who want to do business with them. Very few people become the gatekeepers to their city making this a rare and very valuable skill to possess.
7. When All Else Fails
When you’ve done everything else and are still looking for people to connect to, start cold contacting people on LinkedIn. All other approaches rely on contacting people who have in some way indicted they wish to be contacted. This approach is more of spray and pray your way into a network, but your initiative may be just what some people need to make a connection. Response rates will be lower, but you still may pick up the few who haven’t made themselves easily accessible. I’ve met people in my field who for whatever reason haven’t joined the industry organizations, but are still interested in meeting.
Getting Ready for What Comes Next
One day the COVID-19 pandemic will end and we’ll return to meeting people for coffee, lunches, and drinks. When that day comes, I want to be ready with a very long list of people to catch up with in person, but all of that starts with meeting people online now.