With so many people stuck home these days, networking can feel impossible. It’s not like you can just attend a conference, go to a happy hour, or meet a new contact for coffee.
And even if you aren’t stuck at home, you may not have the time or money to attend in-person events. What can you do to still build and maintain a professional network?
In my experience, online methods are some of the best ways to network regardless of whether you work or study from home. I used the internet to meet almost all of my professional network, and I want to show you how to do the same.
So whether you’re working from home temporarily or permanently, here’s how to network without leaving your computer.
When people ask, “How can I network remotely?” there’s typically a negative implication. People assume remote networking is inferior to in-person networking, that it puts you at a disadvantage.
While networking remotely is different than networking in person, I don’t think it’s inferior. In fact, there are many aspects of remote networking that make it easier and more accessible than meeting people IRL.
You Aren’t Limited by Geography
To meet someone in person, you need to be in the same physical location.
That isn’t much of an issue if you live in a big city with diverse professions and industries. But what if you live in a small town or rural area? In these cases, it’s much more difficult to meet people who do the work you do or want to do.
When you’re networking online, however, you can talk to anyone who has an internet connection. So even if you’re in an obscure field or attempting to meet someone who lives on the other side of the world, it’s still possible to make a connection.
It’s Easier if You’re Shy
If you’re shy, the internet is an invaluable tool for growing your professional network. You can conduct all your communications via text, which is much less intimidating than face-to-face. And you can take the time to compose your thoughts instead of getting nervous and tripping over your words.
I think it’s still important to learn how to talk to people in person and network at events. But remote networking is a great way to plant the seeds of your network and gain confidence reaching out to strangers as you improve your social skills.
Conferences can be a powerful way to grow your network, but they’re usually expensive.
There’s the cost of the ticket, and you’ll likely need to pay for transportation and lodging as well. If you’re lucky, you can get your company or school to cover these expenses, but there’s no guarantee.
Remote networking, meanwhile, is basically free. As long as you have internet access, you’re set.
You Can Fit It in Your Schedule
Not all in-person events require a lot of money (local meetups are usually free), but they all require time.
If you’re taking a heavy course load, work long hours, have kids, or have a job with limited vacation days, you may not have the time to spend several days at a conference or even a whole evening at a happy hour.
But online, this is much less of an issue. If you’re using asynchronous communication such as email, you can theoretically network at any hour of the day. And even if you’re attending a live event, it’s much easier to fit it in your busy schedule since you don’t have to be there IRL.
Language Is Less of a Barrier
You probably take this for granted if you’re a native English speaker, but language can be a huge barrier when meeting people in person.
If you don’t speak English as a first language (or even much at all), then going up to a stranger at a conference is a matter of negotiating both social skills and language skills.
When communicating online, in contrast, you can look up phrases or words you don’t understand, take more time to compose your messages, and avoid the challenge of spoken language altogether. This enables all kinds of collaboration and communication that might be impossible in person.
And, of course, this goes the other way. If you’re an English speaker trying to network with people who speak a language in which you have limited fluency, digital communication can make the process much easier (though I would still encourage you to improve your language skills).
As you can see, there are many benefits to remote networking that you might not have realized. But how do you actually do it? Here are fifteen ways to make connections online:
I’ll start with the most obvious place to network online: LinkedIn.
Since the whole point of the platform is to build your professional network, it’s a great place to start. Just like at a conference, people expect you to reach out to them, even if they don’t know you.
However, you need to do LinkedIn outreach the right way. If you randomly add people with no context or only use LinkedIn’s default message, you’re not going to make much headway.
Instead, you need to personalize your message. Explain who you are, how you heard about the person, and why you want to connect with them. Ideally, have something of value to offer them as well (this is a critical principle for all kinds of networking).
Having shared connections also helps immensely; people are more likely to respond to someone who already knows their friends, family, or coworkers.
For detailed advice on using LinkedIn, including how to set up your profile, check out this guide.
Directly emailing someone is one of the most powerful ways to make a connection. It’s challenging, and it gets a bad reputation because people do it the wrong way. But if you do your research and write an authentic, compelling message, you can make some pretty amazing things happen.
Cold email is how I got some of my first freelance writing jobs, as well as how I ended up writing for this site. It’s even led to some lifelong friendships that go beyond work.
But how do you do it? Lucky for you, I wrote an entire guide about how to send networking emails. Check it out here to learn more.
Ask for an Introduction
Cold email can work, but ideally you never have to write a completely “cold” email. That’s why one of my favorite techniques for making new connections online is to ask for an introduction.
All you have to do is find someone you want to meet and then get a mutual connection to introduce you. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to meet someone who’s busy or difficult to get a hold of.
My only caveat is to respect people’s time. Don’t ask your friend, “Can you introduce me to so and so?” That requires a lot of work on their part.
Instead, make the intro easy. Explain why you want to meet the person, what you have in common, etc. This shows respect for your friend’s time and will also lead to a more focused, effective introduction.
While not expressly a professional network, Twitter is a great place to meet people. It can be challenging to find a person’s email address, but their Twitter profile is only a quick Google search away. Plus, the platform is supposed to be conversational; it isn’t weird to Tweet at someone you don’t know.
On the other hand, the open nature of Twitter can make it harder to cut through the noise. You can message anyone, but there’s no guarantee they’ll respond. Particularly if the person is somewhat influential or well-known, they probably get hundreds of messages per day.
Therefore, it’s important to build rapport on Twitter gradually. Don’t DM someone with no context. Ideally, you want them to be familiar with you before you send them a private message.
To start, retweet or reply to the person’s tweets. Try to say genuine, intelligent things when you do so. People can tell if you’re brown-nosing. Your goal should be to start a real conversation, not just add another name to your contacts.
Once you’ve chatted with someone publicly for a bit and they at least vaguely know who you are, you can try DM-ing them to build a closer connection.
I’ll admit it: I don’t use Instagram and don’t really understand its subtleties. But from talking to others, I’ve learned it can be a great way to build connections.
One of the most interesting methods I’ve heard is to use Instagram hashtags to find other people doing work that interests you. From there, you can start commenting and interacting with the person. Once you’ve built a relationship, you can reach out via DM to start a more personal conversation.
This technique could work for conceivably any field, but it seems especially useful if you’re attempting to connect with artists or other creative people who aren’t active on LinkedIn. Plus, if you’re already on Instagram, you might as well use it for something more productive than scrolling through memes.
Attend Virtual Events
If you enjoy meeting people at events but can’t attend in person, consider a virtual event. They’ve become increasingly common during 2020, meaning there are more opportunities than ever to meet people who share your field or interests.
My main advice for making the most of a virtual event is to be present and proactive. You wouldn’t expect to meet people at a conference if you only watched the speakers. You have to make the effort to talk to people.
This can be a bit more convoluted when meeting virtually, but that’s all the more reason to be proactive.
Sign up in advance for smaller discussion groups or virtual “break out rooms.” If the conference provides a list of attendees with information beforehand, reach out to anyone who seems interesting and tell them you want to connect during the event.
And, of course, join and participate in any Slack channels, Facebook groups, or other virtual communities related to the event. All of these are ways to make an initial connection that you can then nurture via other means such as email.
Start (or Join) a Mastermind Group
Back when I was in college and new to the world of online business and freelancing, mastermind groups were a powerful way for me to build connections with people doing what I wanted to do.
If you’re not familiar, a mastermind group consists of people who share similar goals and meet regularly to give feedback and hold each other accountable.
Such groups tend to be relatively small (3-6 people) and meet via video calls. This increased intimacy makes them useful for building deeper connections than you could at an event or via email.
For maximum networking benefits, start your own mastermind group. This is useful because while you probably know one or two people who’d be a good fit for your group, you’ll likely have to ask your existing network for help finding additional people.
In the process of creating the group, therefore, you’ve already made a new connection!
Of course, starting and running a successful mastermind group is its own challenge. See this guide for advice.
Reach Out to Your Existing Network
Sometimes, you know who you want to meet, and it’s merely a matter of figuring out how.
Often, however, the best person for you to meet is someone you haven’t even heard of. That’s why I like to regularly ask members of my network if they know anyone I’d benefit from meeting.
If they do, then I’ll ask for an intro and go from there. This technique has led to some of my most interesting and influential professional relationships. Just be sure to return the favor and introduce members of your network to new people from time to time.
One of the greatest things about the internet is its ability to help you meet others who share your interests…no matter how obscure those interests are.
If you’re interested in something and want to meet other people who are, there’s probably an online community for it. This makes online communities a powerful place for networking, especially if you’re in a niche field.
But where do you find these communities? “Online community” is a broad term, encompassing everything from forums to realtime chat programs. Listing all of them would be impossible, but here are some major examples:
- Traditional forums and message boards
- Slack groups
- Facebook groups
- LinkedIn groups
- Meetup groups
- Discord groups
- Paid communities (such as Fizzle)
Each of these has different norms, determined both by the platform itself and whoever runs the community. So the details of how to effectively network in a given online community will vary.
But in general, the best approach is to provide more value than you receive. If you contribute to a community and participate in it avidly, people will take notice and be open to connecting with you.
Often, you’ll naturally build closer relationships with people you frequently chat with in the community. This can provide a starting point for moving to a more personal communication method such as DMs or email.
Subscribe to Email Lists
If you already follow someone’s work, it’s much easier to connect with them.
Instead of approaching them as a stranger, you’re an audience member who already shares some common ground. For this reason, subscribing to the email lists of people you want to meet can be a great starting point for building a relationship.
Particularly if the person has a smaller email list, you can often start a personal conversation by replying to one of their emails. So if someone says, “Reply to this email and let me know,” do it!
As always, be genuine and try to add value if you can. This can be as simple as recommending an article that relates to something the person wrote. The key, once more, is to give more than you receive.
Start a Blog
Most of the techniques on this list involve some variation of reaching out to a person you want to meet. But what if you could get interesting people to reach out to you?
Mind you, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Starting a blog isn’t that hard; building one that gets readers is another matter. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, the networking benefits are worth it.
Alumni Networks and Directories
If you’re a current or former college student, you have access to a huge network of alumni. And many of them would love to connect with you. Simply being a student or alum of the same school is usually enough to break the ice and start a conversation.
While in-person alumni events do exist, your college likely has an alumni directory and online alumni groups as well. To find these, you can either visit the alumni portion of your college’s website or contact someone from your college’s alumni organization.
If you can get an introduction from someone at the alumni office, that’s ideal. But if not, take what contact information you can find and follow some of the other tips in this article for reaching out.
Network Within Your Organization
We tend to think of networking as reaching out to people from different organizations. But you should also consider networking within your organization. This can be much easier than cold outreach, since you already share something in common with the person.
To do this virtually, your organization’s primary communication channel is the place to start. This could mean messaging someone in the company Slack to learn more about what they do. Or if you’re in college, emailing someone from one of your classes to discuss a potential collaboration.
Have (Virtual) Coffee
“Let’s have coffee” is the classic starting point for getting to know someone. But what do you do if you can’t meet in a physical coffee shop? Have virtual coffee, of course!
I got this idea from my friend Zack Sexton, who used to have a Calendly page for setting up “virtual coffee” meetings to catch up with friends. The idea is the same as in-person coffee: an informal, time-limited conversation. But instead of meeting at a coffee shop, you meet over Zoom.
Plus, “let’s grab a (virtual) coffee” is both more compelling and less intimidating than the open-ended, “let’s do a Zoom call sometime.”
Unsure which app to use for your virtual coffee meeting? These are the best video chat apps.
Listen to Podcasts
Some of my most meaningful business connections (and now friends) are people I first encountered through podcasts.
In some cases, the person was the podcast host. This was the case with my friend Matt Giovanisci, who I first discovered through Listen Money Matters. Other times, the person was a podcast guest. My friend James Ranson, for instance, was someone I heard about through an interview on the College Info Geek Podcast.
But how do you go from hearing about a person on a podcast to meeting them? There are a couple of approaches.
First, you can try cold email. For this, you should describe how the person’s podcast (or appearance on a podcast) helped you. Starting from a place of genuine respect and admiration makes your email a lot “warmer” than generically introducing yourself.
If you happen to already know the podcast host, you can ask them to introduce you. Follow the principles I discussed above: make the intro as easy as possible. This is how I met James. I already knew Thomas, so it was a simple matter of asking him to make an email intro.
Even if you’re stuck at home, networking is still possible. Indeed, remote networking can open you up to people and opportunities you would never encounter in person.
When thinking about how to use these techniques, remember that you can and should combine them. For instance, you could build a relationship with someone on Twitter and then reach out via email. This is something you’ll figure out yourself with practice, as you become a more adept online networker.
But regardless of the approach you take, don’t use working or studying from home as an excuse not to network. We’re fortunate to live in an era where geography and time are no longer the barriers they once were.
Looking for more remote work tips? Check out our other resources for working and learning from home.
Image Credits: coffee and Zoom call