Networking in the new normal
Making new connections has never seemed more complex than under Covid. Anna Melville-James investigates how professionals can ensure they’re ‘meeting’ the right people and with maximum impact.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have separated us physically but it has flung us together online in new and unexpected ways. In lockdown stasis, building a professional network seems fraught with questions, uncertain goals and new channels of communication. But as our new world takes shape, it’s clear that while we have been collectively holding our breath, how, why and even who we connect with may have changed forever.
Covid-19 has ushered in the demand for an expanded digital space in which we are reimagining our social and professional experiences. For Kelly Hoey, author of Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships in a Hyper-Connected World, our understanding of what is “real” is key to changing perceptions of what is possible.
The bedrock of networking hasn’t gone away– you just need to use these new digital tools as part of creating that bedrock, Kelly Hoey, author
“What we’ve seen in the past few months is everyone thinking that ‘real networking’ has gone away and asking, ‘What are we going to do now?’ But this is how we communicate now – and you’re just as likely to find your next customer because of a blog post or a tweet as you are sitting next to them at a Chamber of Commerce lunch.
“People have woken up to the fact that all that rushing around looking busy because your calendar was full of stuff was superficial, and not producing the results that a relationship-based business needs. That’s liberating because all of a sudden they are realising, ‘Wow, I can do less [physical] networking because I’m putting more out there.’” Online platforms have reaped the benefits of this captive audience, reporting that virtual networking has flourished during the pandemic. LinkedIn has recorded a 60% increase in conversations among connections, year on year.
“In many ways, people are going back to basics – reaching out and checking in with their network, sharing interesting articles and tips, and offering support to help people through this challenging time,” says Josh Graff, UK Country Manager at LinkedIn. “Since February, LinkedIn Live [which lets users broadcast live video content to their network] has seen a dramatic increase in demand. We’ve added a number of companies to our pilot, and we’re seeing broadcasters getting on average seven times more reactions and 24 times more comments than native video produced by the same broadcasters.”
Platforms such as Microsoft Teams are reporting similar uplift, while Zoom has managed to bring videoconferencing to the mainstream, notching 300 million daily participants at the pandemic’s height.
Bringing yourself to work
Your digital profile and willingness to project yourself through more than one channel are now more important than ever. If your LinkedIn profile needs attention, then give it some. Have a proper headshot taken. Get comfortable with the idea that you can have as much impact online as you can over coffee – but, importantly, window dressing alone won’t help you make connections. Digital delegates in the brave new world need energy and focus.
“The underlying dynamic of human beings hasn’t changed and the trust and generosity that are the bedrock of networking hasn’t gone away. You need to use these new digital tools as part of creating that bedrock,” notes Hoey. “Do those classic seven touchpoints to a ‘sale’ have to be physical, post- pandemic? Or could they be a tweet, a webinar, a follow-up email or an invitation to an online networking event?”
At the core is the need to be strategic in your online hangouts, from platforms and webinars to LinkedIn interest groups and web-based networking parties. Being genuinely interested in what people need in the virtual space can open up opportunity far more effectively than circulating a reception room, warm white wine in hand.
Founder of digital consultancy Transmute, Tiffany St James, agrees: “Networking is still happening, it’s just more formal and intense. Now it’s about saying, ‘I’d love to find out about what you do, I’d love to share what I do, can we set up a call?’ Then, in the first 15 minutes, you can ask them what their challenges are, or their client buy-in position and so on. You wouldn’t get that kind of uninterrupted time with someone one to one at a drinks party, for example, and I’m finding it incredibly productive.”
You wouldn’t get that kind of uninterrupted time with someone one to one at a drinks party – I’m finding it incredibly productive. Tiffany St James, Transmute
While content and conversation online find new resonance, it’s video calling that has challenged the networking status quo most during Covid-19. Real-time video connection has given us our visual fix – and a window into everyone’s “real life” – helping to dissolve the divide between professional and home personas. But it has also put us into grey areas with potential for misstep.
“You don’t invite everyone into your home at an event, but we’re now inviting multiple people we don’t know into our environment and showing more of ourselves than we actually ever would before,” says St James. “As a result, there’s an element of stage management that we’re all learning now.”
Putting thought into personal presentation, background, lighting and even a good headset is now a savvy investment. Etiquette is a rolling question, too. The new rules of thumb are to present yourself as if you were there in person – and to ask the other person how they want to connect. Camera on or off can be a personal choice, for example, although for many visual contact is important at the beginning of a video call to build trust. How we greet in lieu of a handshake – with a wave or without – is perhaps a matter of individual style.
Events go virtual
In the end, networking in the new normal is about how we use technology as humans – and how we use it to create ways to interact as we would in person. And nowhere has this imperative to create engaging experiences had more impact than with traditional networking events such as conferences – many of which have migrated online, from Microsoft Build’s developer conference to the FT Weekend Festival.
Providing online events that aren’t ersatz imitations of physical ones has led companies to tap into their wells of ingenuity. Platforms can now offer iStockmainstages, separate workshop rooms and one-to-one networking. High-end pre-production means keynote speakers can be filmed and dropped into online events with a live Q&A, overcoming home internet buffering problems and providing a slicker, more curated experience. Curate42 is one company that is riding the zeitgeist, helping to create innovative digital solutions and opportunities for events in this new space, from engaging scalable online conferences and launches to the amplification of physical events through digital channels.
For partner Wyndham Lewis, however, it still goes back to basics: “Everybody always focuses on the technology first – but just as a voice box gives us the means to speak, not everybody speaks in a way that creates value or relationship. You might have all this functionality, but what you actually say is even more important.
“It’s ironic technology has re-emphasised humanity, as I don’t think we have been applying technology very well to relationship-building to date, with its emphasis on constant transactional messages. New networking is around understanding audiences, giving relevant content to people when they need it and co-creating products and services with customers.”
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