Networking in the Digital Age

By David Rubenstein

For many of us, especially those of us over the age of 40, the term “networking” brings about images of handing out and collecting business cards at professional conferences and events. We stomach the bad food and pretend to be interested in uninspiring (ok, let’s call them for what they are…boring) presentations, when the real reason you are there is to make a new connection that will lead to some form of new business in the near term. If you are like me, after the conference you would go back to your office, add the business cards to your Outlook contacts and send out a somewhat generic follow-up email, personalized with a nugget or two that directly tie to whatever conversations you may have had with that particular contact when you met.

Today, networking is more and more taking place online. That should be good news for many of us, unless of course you are a big fan of rubber chicken and monotone speakers. Online networking brings with it tremendous opportunities, as it offers a much wider pool of potential connections, many of whom may have previously been unreachable. It also brings with it a unique set of means and methods. Networking is no longer something you do on weekly or monthly basis at a meeting. The internet has made networking something you can and should do every single day.

The first rule of thumb is “less is more.” That may sound incongruous in a digital universe that is practically endless, but there-in lies the trap. As we all know, superficial connections rarely produce the any significant new business. This truism is amplified with digital networking, as the majority of your connections will be with people with whom you have little or no regular contact. The tendency in use of digital networking is a quantity-over-quality approach. While this may be useful on certain social media and networking apps, which provide tremendous visibility and make it easy to post an article, write a blog or comment on someone else’s post, the “throw everything except the kitchen sink against the wall and see what sticks” approach is not an efficient method to grow your networking connections. Instead, the use of social media and networking apps should be reserved to keeping you in the minds of those connections you have already made.

The “less is more” strategy also applies to how you communicate through writing. Online messages and posts should be concise, else you run the risk of falling victim to the ever increasing drop in attention spans that plagues our society. Be sure to proof read everything you write before you post it, not only for grammar, but also to cut the fluff. Get your point across in as few words and sentences as you can. Use wide spacing to make it easy for the reader to quickly scan through what you wrote. This also applies to your social media posts and comments.

Another effective strategy in digital networking is to divide your connections into tiers and focus on them in that order. Tier 1 would be your close confidants, those whom you reach out to both for advice and support on a regular basis. For most this tier would have no more than 5 people. Think of this as your weekly connections. Next would be a group of 10-15 people whose opinion you respect that you can reach out to with specific questions. Have a plan in place to reach out to people in this group a couple of times each month. These first 2 groups would likely be the same to you with or without a digital interface. You could have upwards of 200 acquaintances in your 3rd tier. These would be people who you who you can reach out to from time to time to share an article or perhaps refer another contact. Tier 4 would be people who you have a limited (or no) relationship with but who you can try to reach out to. I call this the “shot-in-the-dark” group. Lastly would be any people that follow you on social media that are not in any of your first 4 tiers.

When posting on LinkedIn or other networking sites, keep things fresh by varying the content of your posts. Industry updates, motivational content, anecdotes and videos are just some suggestions. Try to post on a regular basis, but not so much that you are flooding the feeds of your contacts. Also, be sure to comment on someone else’s post at least once every day. You’d be surprised at how effective that simple task can be at increasing your own visibility.

Ultimately, the goals of networking in the digital age are no different than the way we networked before the internet. The only difference is that the interactions take place online rather than in person. So keep in mind that many of the tried and true rules of networking still apply: be authentic; be an expert, not a know-it-all; and make networking about helping others, not yourself.

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