You won’t be able to schmooze at events and conferences this winter, but it’s still important to network.
However, it’s not easy, said Darlene McBain, who used to travel frequently in her job as manager of industry relations for Farm Credit Canada.
Trying to build a network at her computer during the lockdown just felt robotic, McBain said during a presentation at the recent Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference, which was (of course) held online.
“I realized things were going to be like this for a while and it was best that I embrace this new normal,” she said. “Although conferences were cancelled and in-person meetings were postponed, it was not the time to put my networking on hold.”
Now, more than ever, it’s important to stay connected, said McBain, who has developed four rules for networking virtually.
The first is to “be ready.”
“The first thing you want to do before reaching out is that you want to slow down and set yourself up to be successful with online networking. You don’t just want to jump into it without having a plan.”
Being prepared will help you feel more organized, confident, and ready to reach out, she said.
Start by updating your social media profiles and getting on your social media channels so you have recent postings. McBain said she searches for topics that are trending, and looks at her feeds for both conversation starters and people she might connect and network with.
It’s also important to get comfortable with technology, such as Zoom or apps for webinars.
“You don’t want to be panicking trying to get connected to a call, and have people wasting their time, and maybe even miss the call because you don’t know how to connect,” she said.
Her next tip is to be creative.
McBain recently stumbled on a quote that said, ‘Networking is more like farming than hunting.’
“It’s about taking time to really cultivate relationships, and it’s building mutually beneficial relationships,” she said. “You want both parties to walk away feeling that they’ve gained something.”
A good way to make new connections is to look to your existing ones.
“They’re really good at helping you build out your network,” she said. “You can ask them to introduce you to people they might know through an email.”
When taking in a webinar or online event, McBain looks at who else is attending, particularly those who ask questions or make comments. She might then send a note (through social media or LinkedIn) to those who share her interests or if they have something in common (such as having attended the same university).
McBain said she likes it when people send her a link to an article or research paper on a topic discussed on the webinar or online event.
“I always appreciate and feel that it adds value when people send me things that interest me,” she said. “You never know. You might help someone solve a problem or fill a gap and help someone find the solution.”
Her third tip is to “be yourself” when networking.
“Connect in an authentic way, and have a genuine interest in the person whom you’re connecting with,” said McBain. “You don’t want to jump into the nitty-gritty of the conversation too quickly, especially in these times. You want to show some empathy, check in with the person, see where they are at, see what they are feeling and make a genuine connection with them.”
If you’re going to connect on a video platform like Zoom, offer a choice of times, have an agenda of topics to discuss, and pay attention during the call (don’t be checking emails, look at the person, and listen to what they’re saying). And remember, she said, that some people have Zoom fatigue and would rather talk on the phone.
Her fourth tip is to “stay in touch.”
“Networking is an ongoing process,” she said. “You just have to be patient, and relationships don’t get built overnight.”