Main image of article 4 Tips to Transform Online Connections Into Meaningful Professional Relationships

Connecting online with subject matter experts and colleagues has become a popular way to expand your professional network. In fact, statistics show that 40 percent of people network more online than in-person.

However, when it comes to professional networking, connecting is only the beginning. The real challenge is guiding new “digital” connections with colleagues and tech hiring managers toward meaningful follow-up conversations and real professional relationships.

Fortunately, there are ways to make this happen. Here are four methods for transforming online connections into meaningful professional relationships.

Connect On Purpose, For a Purpose

Don’t cold-connect randomly. Review the person’s profile and figure out why you want to connect before you reach out to someone online, advised Bill McCormick, founder and owner of Digi-Sales, a professional training and coaching firm.

Look at their recent activity, their connections, the groups they belong to, their code samples, projects and interests to see what you have in common. Are you interested in learning from them, collaborating on a side project, or soliciting their opinions on the latest tools or career options?

Being intentional and focused on a goal, purpose or mutual interest can help you focus your initial outreach message and make your subsequent interactions more meaningful to a new connection, McCormick explained.

It would be best to have some sort of interaction with the person or visibility before you ask to connect; that way, your next step is a logical extension of where you left off, advised Jayne Mattson, career coach, principal of Jayne Mattson and author of “You, You, Me, You: The Art of Talking to People, Networking and Building Relationships.”  

For instance, have your camera on during online meetings or virtual conferences. If you spot someone you might want to network with, use the chat function to collaborate, engage and get to know each other. If you initially meet in-person, say hello and introduce yourself briefly. After that, ask questions, listen and show a genuine interest in what they have to say.

The key to turning an online connection into a relationship is to focus on the other person when you follow up, send information or have a subsequent conversation.

“Networking is all about serving other people,” McCormick said. Treat the digital space like a face-to-face encounter by considering the needs and interests of the person on the other side of the table (digital or physical).

Pick an Easy Next Step

Your personalized message and request to connect was accepted. Now what? How can you keep this new relationship moving forward?

If you’re connected on LinkedIn, consider ringing their bell. When you follow them or push the bell icon next to their name, you’re notified when they post something online and can seize the opportunity to participate in the conversation.

Pick an easy next step that aligns with your mutual interests or networking goal. For instance, if you met your new connection at a security and risk management summit, consider sharing an article, blog post or podcast about cyber risk qualifications and assessments, then ask for their opinion or views on the topic.

Praise is the most underrated engagement tool. Be sure to send a short note after a networking contact responds to your question or request for feedback, acknowledging their input and effort. You don’t need to go overboard, just say something like: “You make some great points. Thanks for sharing.”

“Pay it forward,” Mattson advised. Thanking someone for their contributions by sending them a digital gift card for coffee is a great way to make them feel valued, build trust and have them remember you.

Continue to ask questions and let your connection do the talking, while looking for an opportunity to insert yourself into the conversation. To develop deeper connections, you have to invest in nurturing the relationship and giving it time to grow.

Give, Give, Give… and Then Ask

Knowing when to invite a connection to be your guest at a conference or meet over virtual coffee is more art than science. You have to get a feel for how the relationship is progressing and how comfortable someone might be meeting face-to-face or having a phone conversation.

For instance, you might try writing something like, “I really enjoyed your interpretation on ranking risks as high, medium and low. I have been asked to share my thoughts on our risk ranking criteria at an upcoming meeting and wondered if you’d be open to having a short virtual chat to discuss my outline.”

Ideally, if you have shared interests or similar roles, you can reach out to new connections ahead of time to suggest a meeting during a conference or similar event. Not everyone will say yes, but you have nothing to lose by asking.

Don’t Drop the Ball

Where most people fall short in developing deeper networking relationships is that they fail to stay in touch or check in with their connections. In fact, studies show that people misjudge the benefits of continuing a conversation with someone they just met.

As a starting point, consider sharing a relevant resource or content on a monthly basis, or discuss common challenges. It’s very easy to touch base with three contacts a week, and deeper networking relationships are developed proactively, not just when you need something.

“The bottom line is that, if you stay in touch, the relationship will evolve on its own,” Mattson said. Being intentional about networking and making an effort to turn contacts into relationships will pay off for you over time.