We live in interesting times.  In the last decade, one approach more than any other has been used successfully by professional services companies looking to build relationships, identify prospects and close new business: Face-to-Face Networking.

And yet right now we are being asked to avoid all face-to-face contact.  Across London networking groups are suspending and cancelling their meetings.  Many businesses who have relied on this approach for new work will see their deal pipelines dry up, as they don’t have other channels in place to deliver regular leads and opportunities.

Given we cannot meet each other at the moment, we have two choices.

  1. We wait. It will be between 3 weeks, 12 weeks and 18 months, depending on which of the commentators turns out to be correct.
  2. We look to augment/replace our current activity with something that mirrors its approach, only utilising approaches that don’t require a face-to-face meeting.

In this article we’re going to look at 2 different approaches to online networking, and discuss the pros and cons of both.

Networking in Online Groups

In order to try to replicate our offline experience, it makes sense to try to find an online straight equivalent to the offline groups we are giving up.  And the first place you might look would be the offline groups themselves.

Many of the offline networking groups have created their own online community website, which allow you to log in, interact with other members, and post questions or comments.  Some are more well used than others, but it is likely that all will be more used in the current situation.  Many are also rapidly putting together an online version of their face-to-face meetings.

https://www.4networking.biz/4networkingonline/ is a good example of a group that is trying to replicate the offline meetings with an online equivalent.  http://www.networkinginsurrey.co.uk/ has had an online community for many years.  Omni Local has instigated an online version of its face-to-face meetings, limited to 24 people at a time, and with priority given to local members.

If you’re already a member of these off-line networking groups, it might make sense to check out the online equivalents.  However if you’re not already paying for the service, there are other alternatives to consider, on the social media platforms.

Social Media Groups

There are a lot of business groups on social media, that often provide a lively and informative environment to meet other business owners.  One of the big early ones was called Ecademy, founded by Thomas and Penny Power.

As time went on, and with the rise of social media platforms themselves, so group functionality was introduced, and a lot of the separate online groups either migrated or were replaced by groups on these platforms.  The audience was already on the platforms, and the barrier to getting started within a group was low.

LinkedIn was the early winner here, and for several years online business groups thrived.  However, while Facebook was a little late to the table, when it did arrive, people found the groups software easy to use and manage, and a lot of groups moved over from LinkedIn.

Today we find ourselves with active groups on both platforms, and both are a good source of people to network with.

Some of these groups are open to join.  Others are private, and you have to apply to join.

In all groups you need to be civil in your interaction.  The more open and friendly you are, the more you help, and the less you overtly pitch, the better your reception will be.

Things to note:

  1. You will need to contribute. Write comments, have an opinion.  Don’t be rude, but do be authoritative.  Remember, you’re not trying to be liked by everyone – you are trying to be respected by your prospects.
  2. Help others. Recommend other members and their services.  Be a good community member.
  3. Remember, we like to buy, but we don’t like to be sold to. When you introduce yourself, try to think about how you can help the other person, not just sell to the other person.
  4. Don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s better to go deep on a few groups and networks, rather than going too broad, and not being able to maintain the engagement.

Are Social Media Groups Effective?

An important question to consider.  Clearly your reach can be quite considerably larger in online groups.  For example, the Not Another Business Group has 395 members.  There are groups online that have thousands of members.  But are all the members engaging?  No.  Are they looking for your services?  Most probably aren’t.  Do they even buy in this way?  It depends.  You’re likely to find the odd person there who is both the right type of buyer, and engaging in the group enough to notice.  But then this is similar to face-to-face networking.

For every person who succeeds online, there’s another who claims it just doesn’t work.  If you’re going to give this kind of approach a go, make sure you are strict in the way you monitor your return on investment, so you know whether it works for you.  It is easy to lose a lot of time online, with little to show for it.

Direct outreach to prospects

Instead of hoping that your prospect might be in a group, might be engaged with that group, might see your engagement, and might reach out, there is an approach that cuts straight to the chase: Direct outreach.

A platform like LinkedIn will allow you to search for people who meet a variety of criteria.  When searching, you have two choices.  The first is to use the basic search.  This will allow you to put in a basic search term – like “managing director”, and you can also add a location.  This will bring back a number of people who have that job title, and who you are not connected to.  You can then click the connect button to connect to them and add a personal note to make them more likely to connect to you.

If you’re going to use this approach systematically, it is worth considering LinkedIn’s Sales Navigator product, which allows you to narrow down the people you are looking for by additional criteria, including company headcount, a more flexible location set, industry sector etc.

We manage direct outreach for our clients, and in our experience you will get between 20% and 50% of people accepting your connection request.

The beauty of the approach is that you hand-selected the people that you reached out to, so if they do accept your connection request, you are now connected directly to a prospect that you chose.

Short-term follow-up

Now they have connected to you, you can begin a dialogue, to learn more about them, and to let them learn more about you.  As with face-to-face networking, all the usual advice applies: be helpful, friendly and engaging.  You will find a percentage of your new connections are interested in a further chat about what you do straight away.  This chat can be face-to-face, or more likely on telephone in the current environment.

Long-term follow up

Lots of people will connect to you but are not interested in doing business with you right now.

However, if you chose who to connect with carefully, they are still a prospect.  If you take a systematic approach to this, you will end up adding thousands of connections to your profile, each a potential prospect.  You are essentially building up a database of potential buyers of your service, and you can use this database to continue your networking in the future.

There are many ways you can make use of this:

  1. You can direct-message people. So over time, as you have interesting things that your prospects might want to know about, you can send them a message.  These messages are a lot more effective than an equivalent email, as email open rates are typically 20%.
  2. You can post content on your feed. With good, engaging content, you will have prospects being reminded of you, which hopefully means they will think of you when they need your services.  You can also put out engaging content that strengthens people’s beliefs that they need your service.
  3. You can create your own events and webinars and invite your prospects to attend them.

Things to be careful of

Growing your online connection base can be fun, but there are a few things you should bear in mind:

  1. Your connection message needs to be engaging and personal. Avoid any hard sell, as these people do not know you yet.  If enough people don’t like your introduction, LinkedIn can remove the ability to connect to people, so it’s key that you come across politely.
  2. Don’t go too far too fast. Build up the number of connection requests per day gradually and retract those that don’t respond.  LinkedIn has a hard limit of 100 requests per day and 3000 per month, but most accounts will be restricted way before that limit.  Build it up over time and consider doing no more than 50 per day.
  3. People will make a decision to connect based on your message and your profile. You need to maximise the attractiveness of your profile.  Take the time to optimise it, and don’t call yourself “Head of Sales”!
  4. Be aware of the value of your time. If you’re going to make this a regular channel for your business, consider getting the connection requests and response management done for you.

In these days of changing behaviours, lots of people will be looking to find new ways to build relationships, and professional services firms will find plenty of opportunity on platforms like LinkedIn.

We are here to support businesses in getting up to speed with LinkedIn outreach.  If you are interested in a free strategy call to help you understand how you can leverage LinkedIn for your business, book a session here.  For the first 30 respondents we are also offering a free two-week trial of our LinkedIn Lead Generation service.


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