Professional Networking in the Virtual Age

I have a confession to make. I am one of the worst offenders of what I am about to post but I bet I’m not alone. I have 810 connections on LinkedIn and according to the site that puts more than 14.7 million other professionals in my network.
But would I be able to tell you anything about 90% of those first-level connections? Probably not.
And that is where many find themselves, with a huge virtual network but no real connections to help manage their professional career.

Maybe networking is not supposed to be this easy

While traditional networking should not be the painful process that many see it as, I’m not sure that it should be as easy as clicking ‘accept’ with no exchange between yourself and another. Sure, there are clear benefits to expanding your network through virtual platforms. We are able to build relationships with people that we would otherwise never meet. My ‘network’ spans nearly every country and just about every industry. Virtual networks help us keep in touch with our connections on a much more frequent basis than we probably could otherwise as well. A quick scan through profile changes lets me stay updated on what people in my network are doing.
But then there are the obvious disadvantages and traps we fall into as well. The ease of virtual networking has given us a false sense of connection and made it easy to neglect establishing stronger relationships. After all, why do I need to work to establish 10 strong connections when I can set up a network of 14.7 million with the click of the mouse?
Having too many ‘connections’ will make it impossible to really keep up with the connections you need to manage your career. Most of the social platforms are set up to run a news feed of things happening in your network. Are the important events and updates in your network getting buried under a pile of news from people you barely know?
Ultimately networking is about using those connections to help each other professionally, whether directly or indirectly through a second-level connection. Do you think you could do this with most of your connections? Would you feel comfortable recommending the people in your network based upon what you know about each of them? You are the only one that can answer the question, “How many connections are too many.”

Time to develop real connections

The benefits of virtual platforms for networking are too good to let them go to waste by superficially building your network so make a commitment to take advantage of them.
I know a lot of people will recommend going through your connections and deleting anyone that isn’t directly relevant to your professional sphere. It depends on how many connections you have but this might not be altogether necessary. If your list is still relatively manageable, you might just try categorizing people into spheres of importance. People with which you want to build a strong relationship would go in one folder and all others in another folder.
Once you’ve cleaned up your network, it is time to work on those relationships like you should have at the beginning. Browse through everyone’s profile and categorize connections within groups of experience, topic of expertise or anything else that might make it easier to organize. The idea is that when you have a question or want to talk to someone about a specific topic, you can quickly look through your network for the right person. This will not only help you answer your questions more quickly but will also help you get to know people in your network.
You probably do not need to talk to everyone in your network every week, maybe not even every month, but you should make it a point to interact with them. Before you go to a presentation or other professional event, send out a personal invite to the connections that might be interested. Regularly check up with your connections to get their opinion on the most important news and event for their sector.
Maybe it’s just that virtual networking is still so new for many of us that we have not learned to use it effectively. I know I’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do.
‘til next time, happy networkin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

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