With social distancing, it's time to understand virtual networking.

As you stay safely in your home, you may feel disconnected from people — or entirely too connected to the people in your home. The COVID-19 pandemic has made social distancing a part of your life, which can be frustrating. People are important for both your personal life and your career. 

That said, this is still a time when it is worth the effort to reach out and make connections, even if you aren't leaving your home. Touching base with loved ones is easy enough, but how do you continue to build relationships and grow your professional network from your home office? 

It may not be ideal — or even easy — but there are a number of ways that you can pursue virtual networking. 

Virtual networking events

Maybe you've always liked attending networking events: You get to hang out somewhere nice, meet new people, shake some hands, and possibly bump into some professionals you already know.

Unfortunately, it's a different time right now and events like that are simply not viable. But that doesn't mean they can't be transformed into an online networking event. 

A simple Google search for “virtual networking event” calls up a lot of options, with Eventbrite creating a calendar for online networking events. Some of them have a specific theme or target audience and may have a cost to attend. Others are free and open to anyone who wants to make new connections. 

If you want to narrow the field, simply add a city, location, or industry to your search and see what pops up. Then, make sure your computer is ready for video conferencing, dress up, and meet some new people! When you're networking online, there's no handshaking required.

Virtual job fairs

Whether you are currently in the market for a new job or not, a virtual job fair can be a great way to explore new options. Let's face it; no matter how much you love your job, there are always better opportunities out there. Just like with virtual networking events, you can find virtual job fairs easily with a quick Google search.

Before the virtual job fair, ask yourself a couple of key questions: What kind of job would it be? Are your resume and cover letter ready to be reviewed? Are there certain companies you're interested in more than a specific job title? Put together a game plan. 

If possible, research who will be representing companies at the job fair to see if there is anyone you can potentially connect with. Then, during the job fair, reach out to them. If there isn't a job fit right now, you can still make a great new connection.

As always, check and double-check your computer to ensure it is ready for a virtual conference and dress up as if you were going to the job fair in-person — appearances still matter. Also, set your computer up so you have a pleasing background that looks professional. It doesn't have to be an office, just a clean and simple backdrop.

Network through social media

While social media is meant to be, well, social, that doesn't mean you can't use it to your advantage when it comes to building your professional network. In fact, social media might be the best way to do your networking virtually. Here's how you can use some of the most popular social media sites for professional networking. 

LinkedIn

Linkedin is the social media site geared towards work. You've probably built up a pretty good list of connections on it. Now what?

  • Look through your connections for people you respect highly, but haven't talked to in a while. Reach out to them via Linkedin to say hi and ask them how're they are doing. It's a simple way to reconnect with people.

  • Take a look at the Linkedin “People You May Know” feature. Under “Connections”, Linkedin will list out people that have similar roles to yours, people with whom you share a lot of connections, or who simply live and work near you. Look these over and see if there is anyone you know that you haven't connected with, adding a personal note to your connection request to jumpstart the conversation.

  • Find and follow companies that you admire; their posts will show up in your feed and you can get a feel for what they are doing and who are some of the main players. Then, if you feel brave, reach out to some of those people to connect. 

  • Create and publish posts of your own. If you have a blog, great. Post some of your content to put your expertise on display. If not, post and share content you admire. It puts you out there so that your name and face show up on other people's feeds.

Twitter

Twitter is a lot more than just writing a short blurb about whatever crosses your mind; it is a great platform to build a network and display your own expertise. 

  • Tweet about your industry frequently. Whether it's insights you have about new trends or sharing success stories, be sure to post on a regular basis using relevant hashtags so the right people see them.

  • Follow hashtags that are important to you and your industry. By following these hashtags, you'll find out who are the thought leaders out there on the subject, and you can begin to engage.

  • After you follow someone, comment on their posts or retweet them. This is a natural way to break the ice and create a new connection.

  • If you really want to deep-dive into Twitter, consider posting a live video or even a poll. Polls are a great way to get people talking and engaged on a topic of your choosing. 

Facebook

Facebook can be a little bit trickier for professional networking, with most people preferring to use Facebook as their personal social media. Still, you'll find that many people also follow their favorite businesses there.

  • Don't underestimate personal (rather than professional) connections. Look through your “People You May Know” section and see if there are any friends out there that you don't have as a FB friend. Add them and say hi. If they aren't working in your industry, chances are they know someone who does or they know someone who knows someone — you get the drift.

  • Go live. Find a topic that is timely and fun and post a live video where you show off what you can do or what you know. It's a great way to engage with other FB users. Just don't forget to promote the video for a week or two beforehand so people know it's coming.

Instagram

Photos are a wonderful way to engage an audience, and that's what Instagram is all about. While you should keep it fun, you can also sneak in some professional networking if you try.

  • Much like Twitter, you can follow people you admire on Instagram and comment on their photos to start a connection. You can also use and follow hashtags to connect with others who have similar interests.

  • Always keep comments professional and polite. If you're looking to establish a professional connection, avoid commenting on factors that don't have to do with your industry or work aspirations, like physical appearance. While you might think it's a harmless compliment, it's better to avoid it altogether.

Master the informational interview

One of the best skills you can hone during this time is conducting informational interviews. An informational interview is just what it sounds like; it's gathering information. 

Whether you're looking for information on a particular company or job, you can accomplish a lot just by finding someone online who is on the inside and then asking the right questions: What is the company culture like? What's your favorite part of the job? 

The beauty of the informational interview is that it doesn't have to feel like an interview. Think of it as a conversation instead.

Grab a cup of (virtual) coffee

Just because you're social distancing doesn't mean you can't have a coffee date — just make it a virtual coffee date. Who do you invite? Here are some ideal candidates:

  • That new connection: Have you made a new connection that you've never met in person? Meet over Zoom, or a similar platform, for a cup of joe and get to know each other. It's a low-pressure way to kick off that new relationship.

  • That old connection: Is there a person you've been connected to forever who you've lost touch with lately? A virtual coffee date is a great way to reconnect. 

  • A customer: Do you have a client or customer who is a champion for your business? Set up a virtual coffee chat to get to know them better. Find out what keeps them coming back to your business, and perhaps even offer them a perk once things return to normal (or whatever the new normal will be). 

  • Your boss: Why not reach out to your direct boss or someone else who's up the ladder from you at your company? This is a good chance to get to know them a little better while putting yourself on their professional radar.

When you do a virtual coffee date, it should be a light, casual experience. Keep it fun, but still use the opportunity to build your professional relationships.

Stay in touch

Once you've made the effort to reach out and build your network virtually, don't let that effort go to waste. If you don't hear back from some of the people you are reaching out to within a week or so, follow up with them.

The ones that go really well deserve a revisit, too. Did you have a great conversation or coffee date? Send a thank-you message, or wait a bit and see if they want to do it again. 

Believe it or not, many people may be more interested in networking right now than ever before. As we all do our best to social distance, we still crave interactions with others who share our interests and our goals. So, take this time to make some new connections and build a stronger professional network to keep your career moving forward during these uncertain times.

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