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Are the rules different for virtual networking?

How effective is networking in a virtual environment versus in-person?

Networking has certainly evolved during the pandemic. Fortunately, we have technology to facilitate continued interaction, and we have to continue to move forward.

I’m starting to see more and more organizations transition to the virtual format and offer events and conferences that initially had been put on hold, which is great to see. I am also seeing more organizations starting to incorporate networking opportunities into their events — also a very good thing as many people are seeking out networking opportunities right now.

As I’ve always said, networking is important for so many reasons, from getting a job to securing a board opportunity. A strong network can be very powerful and gives people the ability to open doors for themselves and others.

For those who are in a position in which they are expected to bring in business now or in the future, networking and building a network is particularly important. Even in-house lawyers should be networking, as one day they might find themselves in private practice.

If you are not already in this mindset, make the shift and start now. A network takes time to build, and you should always be focused on building and maintaining your network through relationship-building and being a connector of people.

Always try to connect dots and think of ways you can help others. If you become a strong connector of people, you will become known for it, and it will build a very strong personal brand.

As for tips on attending virtual networking events, many of the same rules apply as in-person events. You should still do a lot of listening and asking questions about the other people in the virtual room. Think about how you can be helpful to them, and even ask them how you can be helpful or who are good connections for them.

I’ve been in virtual networking situations in which the conversation was just so random and went off in a direction that wasn’t productive or a good use of anyone’s time. If that happens, take the lead. Suggest that everyone go around and introduce themselves: who they are, what they do, and maybe something brief about themselves, such as where they live, where their office is located, or a fun fact. The goal is to connect dots with others and find common ground for conversation.

It can be hard not to talk over each other when in a large group in virtual situations, similar to conference calls. What I have done is go to the participant list and call on people to make the conversation run smoother and give everyone a chance to participate.

Be brief and respectful of others, so everyone has a chance to participate in the discussion and at least let everyone know who they are and what they do. It is really important to be self-aware and not dominate the conversation, regardless of whether it is not intentional.

I recently attended a virtual event in which three of the attendees clearly knew each other well and dominated the conversation, as if no one else was in the virtual room.

I’ve seen this happen before. It is rude and makes for an unenjoyable experience for others. It’s also a lost opportunity to meet new people and doesn’t leave a positive impression. After all, one of the main reasons to network is to meet new people and catch up with those you already know.

Be thoughtful of others; it shouldn’t be all about you. I always loved to see when someone would perform an act of kindness at an in-person event and go out of their way to approach the person standing by him or herself. You can do a similar thing in a virtual situation by including all.

Go into a group networking conversation with curiosity and an open mind. You never know who you are going to meet, and how you might be able to help each other in the future, even if it doesn’t seem immediately apparent.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the same rules apply as in-person networking. Remember to follow up with those you meet. At the very least, connect on LinkedIn with a personal note reminding them how you met. You can continue to follow up via email and suggest a subsequent discussion to get to know more about each other via Zoom or a call. I like to give the other person that choice, because many people are Zoomed out these days. It can be a relief when someone suggests a call. It is always nice, however, to see someone’s face.

Continue to keep up with your contacts list, and regularly follow up with clients, past clients, referral sources, and contacts in general. Even if it is just an email to say hello and ask how things are, people welcome and appreciate that, especially during these crazy times.

It really is important to remain visible and remind people you are around for continued referrals and additional client work, but staying in touch is a nice and fun thing to do in general.

Make 2021 a time to start fresh, make new connections and re-connect with existing connections!

Ellen M. Keiley is president of EMK Consulting Group, based in the Boston area, which offers business development coaching and consulting, public relations and training for law firms and other professional services firms.