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How to Build Your Professional Network Digitally

The coronavirus pandemic has made virtual networking a more critical skill than ever.

When the coronavirus pandemic spread across the U.S., it forced millions of Americans to shelter in place—closing thousands of restaurants, bars and other “nonessential” businesses. It also shut down professional conferences and events, leaving many workers with only one way to network: virtually.

Luckily, most HR practitioners know their way around social media. After all, 84 percent of recruiters said they use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to search for talent, according to Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) research.

But building a network remotely requires a particular set of skills—and, sadly, “there’s a lot of bad networking behavior taking place online,” says Kelly Hoey, author of Build Your Dream Network (TarcherPerigee, 2017).

So we spoke to Hoey and other networking experts to identify tactics you can use to grow and nurture your professional connections online.

Ace Your LinkedIn Profile

LinkedIn is social media’s staple for professional networking. Workers of all ages—from Generation Z and Millennials to Generation X and Baby Boomers—use LinkedIn to build relationships, stay in touch with their professional contacts and gain visibility in their industry. 

Utilizing LinkedIn effectively requires creating a strong profile, which begins with choosing a professional headshot. “We’re all image-driven these days,” says Karen Wickre, author of Taking the Work Out of Networking (Gallery Books, 2019). “To not have a photo on your LinkedIn profile can look a little suspect, and a photo is a humanizing touch.”

Crafting a headline that speaks to your area of expertise is also crucial and encourages viewers to read your whole profile, Hoey says. “Your headline is more than your last job title—it’s your opportunity to brand yourself for the opportunity you want or to highlight the expertise you’re flexing,” she notes. Picking keywords to optimize search engine visibility can help drive traffic to your page. A few good examples: outplacement specialist, strategic human resources executive or talent acquisition specialist.

You should also weave relevant keywords into your profile’s summary, or “about” section. “Focus on timely skills,” says Hoey, and update this section as needed. “Every time you update your profile, you can send a notification to your network,” she points out.

Pro tip: Creating a customized LinkedIn profile URL will allow others to easily identify you in search results. Go to your profile page, and then follow the directions under “Edit public profile & URL” on the right rail.

Grow Your Circle

Wickre says building connections on LinkedIn is not a numbers game.

“It’s not about connecting with as many people as possible,” she says. “It’s about being intentional with who you add.” 

Make sure you’ve connected with professionals you know, including present and past co-workers, managers and other industry peers. Then take a targeted approach when introducing yourself to new people, says Susan RoAne, a keynote speaker and the author of How to Work a Room (William Morrow, 2014) and The Secrets of Savvy Networking (Grand Central, 1993). “When my own brother sent me a boilerplate LinkedIn request, I wanted to delete it,” RoAne says. 

Likewise, David Burkus, author of Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career (Houghton Mifflin, 2018), says generic invitations to connect don’t work. “The default language when you send a connection request on LinkedIn is ‘I’d like to add you to my professional network,’ ” Burkus says, “which makes you sound like a robot.”

Your best approach? Explain why you want to connect. For example, you could say, “I watched your video series on YouTube, and I thought it was excellent. I have a question for you about it.” 

And, of course, if you have something in common, mention that. “If you went to the same college, absolutely point that out,” says networking coach Stephanie Taxy, author of Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself(and Your Ideas) and Win Over Any Audience (Currency Doubleday, 2008).

Engage with People in Your Sphere

Once you’ve connected with people, your mission is to stay on their radar. One way to do this is by sharing a contact’s content, such as their LinkedIn updates. But “don’t just pass information along,” Wickre says. “Highlight what you thought was interesting in the piece. That gives more insight into who you are.”

Also, celebrate people’s career achievements. If you see that someone was promoted or started a new job, congratulate the person. 

Tweet Your Way to a Stronger Network

There are a number of social platforms other than LinkedIn that you can leverage to build your network, starting with Twitter. 

“Twitter is like a great cocktail party for networking,” Hoey says. The platform removes barriers to connect with industry leaders and influencers, allowing you to digitally rub shoulders with people you may not have access to at a conference or other industry event. The caveat? “Your behavior determines whether or not people want to engage with you,” Hoey says.

So, in addition to tweeting about industry news, you’ll also want to share or comment on other people’s tweets to initiate conversation and establish goodwill. 

Follow the right crowd—specifically, experts in your field who have lots of followers. To organize your news feed, Wickre recommends using Twitter’s lists feature to sort people who are experts on a specific subject. For example, you could create a list of “HR data collection experts,” she explains. 

Set your name as your Twitter handle so people can find your page easily via search, or use some variation of your name (for example, @SusieSmith_HR) if your name is already taken. 

Don’t Overlook Facebook or Instagram

Facebook is mainly used to stay in touch with family and friends, but it can also be a great networking tool.

Many professional associations are active on Facebook. Following groups that you belong to or are interested in joining can expose you to new connections. Case in point: SHRM’s Facebook page had more than 273,000 followers as of April 1, and the association uses it to promote its events and key resources. 

Once you’ve connected with people, your mission is to stay on their radar.

You can also join Facebook groups to connect with like-minded individuals or professionals who share things in common. For example, there’s a Facebook group called HR Practitioners of Color, where members can share career advice and best practices. 

Even Instagram can be an effective networking tool, Wickre says, for HR practitioners who are trying to recruit or engage creative professionals, such as graphic designers or photographers. 

Use E-Mail to Keep Your Network Warm

Many people make the mistake of contacting others only when they need something, such as a reference or a job lead, Burkus says. However, it pays to regularly stay in touch with people in your professional network. That way, they will more likely be ready and willing to help should the time come when you need a favor. 

We all get busy with work, and sometimes more-pressing job tasks, such as time-sensitive projects, cause us to lose touch with former colleagues. The good news is there are ways to rekindle relationships online with minimal awkwardness.

Hoey suggests doing your homework and finding out what’s going on in the person’s professional or even personal life. “If you see that someone gets promoted or gets a new job on LinkedIn, that’s a great opportunity to check in,” she says. 

“Be intentional when you reach out to someone,” Taxy says. “A generic e-mail saying something like ‘Hey, just checking in’ can be really hard for someone to answer.” 

See a former co-worker post photos from his or her vacation on social media? Use that as a conversation starter. Read an article that reminds you of someone? Share it with the person via e-mail.

To start a conversation, Burkus recommends this counterintuitive tactic: “I like to end e-mails with ‘I hope you’re well. No reply needed.’ It’s a way of signaling that I don’t have an agenda, and, more often than not, when I write ‘no reply needed,’ I get more responses.” 

If the person lives near you, consider taking the conversation offline. Grabbing a cup of coffee once social distancing lessens is a low-key and effective way to reconnect with someone.   

Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.


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