In the old pre-COVID days, we self-employed professionals went to local and global gatherings to meet people — mixers, professional meetings, conferences, community events, cultural happenings, and more. To follow up with our contacts, we scheduled coffee, lunch, drinks, or a visit to their workplace. Or, we simply planned to engage with them again at the next gathering.

Social network

Now, with all these events either canceled or moved online, we’ve lost the interactions that used to happen at them. At the same time, we’re missing the relationship-building aspects of meeting across a café table or a desk.

And yet, we still need to network — both to meet new contacts and to follow up with those we know, in some way other than having sales conversations. Especially because many of those contacts are not people we want to sell to at all. They may be potential referral partners, or organizers of a group we might speak for, or other useful contacts for business-building.

Here are three keys to succeeding at pandemic networking, which may also be of benefit after the pandemic finally ends.

1. Reach out. Just do it at a distance.

First, there’s a lot of networking you can do without needing to meet anyone new. You already have a list of contacts that may include:

  • Current and former clients
  • Prospective clients
  • Professional colleagues
  • Past and potential referral sources
  • Members of your affinity groups, connected with you via a neighborhood, school, club, church, hobby, sport, etc.

Networking, by definition, requires conversation. Although conversing in person right now may not be possible, you still have many other channels available to you:

  • Phone calls
  • Text messages
  • Emails
  • Social media posts (yours or theirs)
  • Services like Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn Messaging, WhatsApp, or Slack, where you already have contacts

Once you’ve connected, you can continue a conversation on that channel, talk by phone, or have a video session. For ideas about what to say in your messages and conversations, see my posts What Kind of Marketing is Possible Right Now? and 44 Ways to Follow Up with Your Prospects.

To meet new people under pandemic conditions, you still have plenty of options:

  • Ask your existing contacts for introductions to new folks
  • Attend virtual “mixer” events such as happy hours and socials scheduled by professional associations, vendors, community groups, and cultural organizations
  • Join affinity groups that connect online in Facebook/LinkedIn groups or other social networks
  • Participate in Facebook Live events, Twitter chats, or other online gatherings
  • Take online classes that allow interaction with other students (via chat messages, for example)

2. Put more thought into your outreach.

Without the serendipitous connections that happen at in-person events, you’ll have to be more strategic about who you reach out to. Think about the categories of people your network is short on. Do you need to know more potential clients? More possible referral partners? More influential folks who could invite you to guest speak or guest blog?

Choose a category to work on expanding and consider where and how you might intentionally connect with more people in that category. This very question is an excellent one to ask your existing contacts when you reach out to them: “I’m looking to meet more serious runners – any ideas about where they hang out online?” or “I’d like to get to know more art directors and marcom managers. Anyone in your network who might be open to a get-acquainted conversation?”

3. Reach out respectfully.

Please, please, please, don’t think that you’re networking if you request some strangers to become LinkedIn connections, then send them sales messages. This is no different than mailing out advertising flyers, or emailing generic messages to people who don’t know you, AKA spam. Asking recipients to “jump on a call” so you can sell to them doesn’t turn this approach into networking, either.

Networking isn’t advertising. When going to an in-person event, you don’t stand around passing out business cards or brochures, do you? So, don’t blast out messages that are simply promos.
Being respectful in your approach requires considering how further contact with you would benefit the other person. This is why I emphasize re-connecting with people who already know you, or seeking introductions and existing connections. When someone is a former client, a past co-worker, or a professional colleague, you can have an idea what might be of benefit. With a stranger, it’s much less likely that you’ll know anything about them.

Make it your primary focus in any networking exchange to be helpful. Think of at least one way you might help the other person before making contact. Then watch and listen to their responses for more clues about what you might provide that would help them.

To sum up.

If implementing the three keys I’ve described seems a bit daunting, it may just be that you weren’t doing that much networking before the pandemic. Maybe you were simply showing up at events and calling it a day. This could be the perfect time to hone your networking skills and get real about making and nurturing more connections.

How do you network to get clients during a pandemic? At a distance. Thoughtfully. Respectfully.

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