With very few in-person meetings since March, COVID-19 has made building rapport more difficult than ever. No face-to-face meetings, events, or conferences to attend. No hands to shake. To some extent, what connects us as humans has been lost. And many in comms and PR roles have felt the impact, with far fewer ways to make meaningful connections through professional networking.
Technology has, to a degree, helped us maintain and build relationships without having to physically meet. Digital alternatives, including online meetups, webinars, communities, forums, Q&A sites, social media, content, profiles, and portfolios can fill the void to provide those in the industry with multiple opportunities to showcase their skills, while also being able to connect with like-minded individuals, and listen and learn from others.
Professional networking will always be a core part of a PR professional’s role, after all, we’re known for our little black book of contacts. With everyone now vying for attention via email and calls, rather than attending or hosting events with journalists and customers where stronger bonds can be formed, it’s crucial that online alternatives are being utilised as effectively as possible.
Online networking—where to begin?
The obvious place to start is LinkedIn. With over 700 million active users, there’s a good reason that the platform is often the first port of call for networking. However, a recent study showed that very few LinkedIn users felt that their connections were useful and also highlighted the ‘spam problem’ on the platform. It is up for debate whether this is due to the poor quality of connections, or people finding it difficult to use the platform to network effectively but overall, perceptions of LinkedIn being a place to maintain and nurture professional networks is low. It’s become a sort of online Rolodex – more about the storage of names and contact details, than for making meaningful connections.
LinkedIn has evolved a lot in the last few years, from a professional network to a marketing, sales and “spam-filled” platform, dominated by ‘broetry’ style posts and ads, with its algorithm largely dictating what its users see in their feeds.
What’s more, LinkedIn is pushing users to upgrade to a Premium account in order to get access to features such as increased profile searches as well as InMail messages, which allows for direct messages to be sent to another LinkedIn member that is not a connection. Their Sales Navigator tool and expansion into new ad formats have increased the number of speculative salesy connections and have accelerated LinkedIn as a business development tool rather than a place to network.
So besides LinkedIn, what other tools, niche sites, communities, and platforms are there where you can build your professional profile and connect to others, without getting lost in the noise?
Video conferencing and private networking groups
Web conferencing platforms have provided an invaluable method of connecting in a COVID era. Not only are they great for hosting and attending webinars and online conferences, they can also be utilised for more personalised and exclusive meetups. Virtual roundtables are a great way to chat with core contacts in a more intimate and interactive way.
Breakfast and lunch meetups can also be done virtually, with the incentive of providing guests with a voucher for an online food delivery service such as JustEat to entice them to join.
Membership organisations, such as the UK-based Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Greater London Group organises monthly ‘DrinknLinks’ for members and non-members. It’s a place to break out of your specialist comms silo and meet a broad range of friendly, passionate people over Zoom and a mug or glass of your favourite brew.
Private/intimate professional networking using videoconferencing and private messaging groups is a trend that seems to be gathering momentum during a time where physical meetups are difficult. The secret is to look for invitations and members of these groups that you can reach out to.
Online forums and communities
Forums and communities are great places to share knowledge and get advice, but they also provide opportunities to network in a more meaningful way, as their members and users already have shared interests.
Being an active member in community forums builds trust and offers a platform for demonstrating expertise, making it a perfect environment for forging relationships.
Although everyone is there in some way to promote themselves or their business, users can generally spot the hard sell from miles away. Bear in mind that forums and communities are not the place to be too promotional, and doing so may even result in a ban.
Before posting or replying to anything, it’s important to adhere to the rules and etiquette guidelines. Check out whether there are active threads on a topic, or whether a question has already been asked or answered many times before. Take time to craft responses, and ensure that posting is consistent. Try to give as much as you take – offer advice, guidance and connections to others will prove fruitful as it will be returned in spades.
Additionally, some sites may protect their communities from spam by only allowing those who have built up a certain amount of expertise or clout by interacting before they are able to start conversations, comment, or add links to external sources. Reddit is a classic example of this, where users have to build up a certain amount of Karma to be eligible to post or comment. Other forums and communities will have a vetting process in place to check the credentials of those applying to join, while others are invite-only.
In spite of the algorithm making it difficult to network easily on Twitter, it’s still a place where you can listen and join conversations with the people that matter – you just have to know how to use the platform features.
Twitter lists are effective ways to group people together that you know are either connected in an existing, or even loose network that you wish to join. Identify who the people are at the centre of that network and then establish who engages with them and contributes to their discussions and debates. As with forums, bring something useful to the party when you engage.
Hashtags have been an important part of Twitter since 2009 when the platform began using them to group relevant content. While the hashtag is often hijacked for marketing purposes, they can also be used to find groups, communities, and conversations that can be leveraged for networking purposes.
When looking to forge a relationship with a Twitter user, after following them, check out what hashtags they are using, what lists they follow, and what types of posts they engage with most frequently before replying to their Tweets, or retweeting them. It never hurts to promote others, so ensure that their handle is used when sharing something they have published. Direct messaging is a good way to kick off relationships on Twitter, frees you from the 280 character restrictions, and allows you to have a much more personal contact.
It’s also a good idea to follow hashtags used by journalists and bloggers, such as #PRrequest, #JournoRequest, #HARO and #BloggerRequest. Use the advanced search to filter topics and industries of interest for an easy way of making an introduction – with the added bonus of securing coverage.
Profile and portfolio pages
Having a well optimised, and professional online presence is essential for showcasing skills and experience and connecting with contacts.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that much of what we post online is in a public forum – so keeping professional and personal life separate is always a good idea. Set personal accounts to private and point people toward professional accounts in about me or bio sections if necessary. Be consistent across sites, using the same or similar wording, themes and photos to create a strong professional brand.
Most importantly, keep profiles and portfolios up to date, and link sites together. Make sure you check visibility in search engines regularly to mop up anything that could have a negative impact on someone’s first impression that could cause them to have second thoughts about reaching out to connect.
Finally, when networking online, remember that just like a friendship, a professional relationship requires constant nurturing to maintain a connection in a meaningful way. If you take more than give, then the relationship won’t last.
While it may be difficult to meet in person for some time yet, forging strong bonds with key contacts in this new normal can still be just as effective when done correctly.