Professional growth is an ongoing process. It includes not just learning and advancing within your current job but also looking ahead to future opportunities. And now, so many options for development are online, from conferences to networking events.
It may sound difficult to make any meaningful or helpful connections during a virtual event because you can’t strike up a conversation in the coffee line or have a quick whispered aside with the person sitting next to you, and you can’t shake hands and ask a personal question of a speaker after their talk. But that doesn’t mean virtual networking events are something you should avoid.
In fact, you should look at virtual events as excellent chances to add more people to your professional network—you just have to be strategic about it. So, when you sign up for your next virtual networking event or career fair, keep these five tips in mind to make it worth your time.
1. Go in Already Knowing Your Networking Goals
Everyone is going to have different goals when it comes to networking, but you should clearly establish what yours are ahead of time. What are you ultimately trying to accomplish by attending this particular virtual networking event? Is there a specific skill set or area of expertise that you want to learn more about? Do you have a set number of new people you want to add to your online network?
Be clear with yourself about what you want to accomplish at any given event. It could be as simple as introducing yourself to three prospective customers or to schedule one follow-up call with a potential business partner. Maybe you’re more ambitious and want to trade emails with ten other attendees. Whatever your goals are, make a list to keep you focused and help you know where to best invest your time.
Because virtual networking events don’t have the same potential for bumping into people that you’d have at in-person events, it’s even more important to have a clearly defined plan so you can get the most out of attending.
2. Look at the List of Attendees Beforehand
Most virtual event organizers share their event guides and other details in advance, including who is attending and leading discussions. Go through the list of who’ll be there and see who would be the type of people you’d want to connect with.
Be thoughtful in how you organize your networking targets, thinking about who would be the most appropriate for pre-event or post-event discussions, and whether it would be best to reach them over social media, email, or even the phone.
Don’t desperately chase down these people during the event, however. See what discussions they’re interested in and look into signing up, but don’t follow them around to the point where you’re losing out on something that could really benefit you. You may get the chance to talk with them during a session, or you might end up connecting with someone else instead. And if you’re following someone else into a session that doesn’t ultimately help you with your professional goals, then you’re not getting what you truly need out of the event.
3. Actively Engage in Discussions
You want to stay visible during a virtual event, and that means speaking up when you can and being an active participant in the discussion or activities lined up by the organizers. Come prepared with some potential questions to ask, but also be receptive to what other people are saying and be willing to bounce off of them when they say something you’d like to hear more about. Asking a thoughtful question or offering an insightful comment can spark further conversations and even lead to true connections toward the end of the event.
The importance here is not to talk just for the sake of talking—instead, you should be adding value to the conversations you’re involved in. The general rule is to post one comment or question per session. This way, other people can contribute and ask questions, too, and you’re not monopolizing the discussion or making it all about you. That’s a quick way to turn people off and quash any potential for real connections.
4. Publicize Your Attendance Before and After the Event
Many virtual events will also include hashtags for publicizing the event in their registration packets or event websites. Before the event, use these hashtags to promote the fact that you’re attending to reach more people who might be interested in the event. You’ll also be able to engage with other registered attendees and be able to look out for each other during the actual event.
You can also mention the event on your website or blog, or include a note about your participation in a marketing email. You might just encourage others to sign up and give them a chance to connect with you in a session.
After the event is over, you should still post about it on your social media accounts. Share screengrabs of live events and your thoughts on different presentations to let the organizers know how you liked it. You’ll also be able to show your followers that you’re the type of professional who is engaged in continued professional growth.
You can also use the event’s hashtags to look up other attendees quickly and give them a follow or leave them a comment about how much you enjoyed a session that you were in together.
5. Follow Up in a Timely Manner
Let’s say that you’ve had some great conversations with several people and got their email addresses. Great! But you do have to follow up with them, and fairly quickly, too, so that these contacts don’t get stale.
Within the first three days after the event (preferably even within the first 24 hours), you need to email your direct contacts with thank-you notes or requests for further conversations. If you live near each other, you can suggest an in-person meeting, or you can otherwise suggest a phone call or video call.
Also within those first three days, look up your new contacts on LinkedIn and send them a message referencing the event alongside a connection request. Lastly, double-check your notes and make sure you attend any post-event meetings or calls that you set up during the event itself.
Be sure to also check your email regularly (including your spam folder) for any similar requests from other people who are trying to connect with you after the event.
A Final Note
You can still grow your network and expand your career options without attending in-person events. In fact, look at virtual networking as a chance to take advantage of events that you normally wouldn’t have been able to attend because they were in another part of the country from where you live.
Lastly, remember that networking is all about people, so make sure that you’re looking at virtual networking events as opportunities to make real connections where you both benefit from knowing each other. Be helpful and share your own knowledge with your new connections, and they’ll be able to do the same.
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