Virtual networking strategies that work
By ATB Financial 20 January 2021 5 min read
Networking. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that it’s an important piece of the entrepreneurial puzzle. International Networking Week is February 1–6, and the theme for this year is ‘A World of Thanks’. Founded in 2007 by Business Networking International, a business networking and referral organization with almost 300,000 members globally, International Business Week exists to “celebrate the key role that networking plays in the development and success of businesses across the world.”
In a typical year, International Business Week would be celebrated around the world with scores of in-person networking events. But 2021 (and 2020 for that matter) is not your typical year. Networking events are just one of the many business staples that have been shelved as a result of physical distancing. However, during these times of high unemployment and COVID-related business challenges, networking is more important than ever.
“Networking is a very important skill to have as an entrepreneur,” says Nicole Medeiros, community manager with ATB’s Entrepreneur Centre. “It’s a soft skill that takes time, practice and a little courage.”
So, how exactly does one continue to network when the traditional name badge and handshake-filled live events are no longer a fixture in our calendars?
Virtual networking events
ATB Financial has four Entrepreneur Centres across the province (in Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, and Lethbridge), which provide a variety of supports to entrepreneurs at every stage of their businesses. While each centre would typically hold anywhere from one to four events per week pre-COVID, they promptly pivoted to weekly webinars once the live gathering enforcements hit.
Webinars are just one way that entrepreneurs can keep informed and continue to build their network. Medeiros cautions against taking a passive approach though. “If there is a session you're on that is chat enabled, I recommend signing in with your company following your name,” Medeiros advises. “For me, I always sign in as ‘Nicole Medeiros—ATB’. Be sure to ask questions to the presenter, maybe even chat in the chat, if the speaker makes a point you like write a comment. Get your name out there.”
Virtual networking events also started popping up once their in-person counterparts took a breather. These, too, can be a worthwhile way to keep your networking skills fresh. “Often these networking events will ask you to introduce yourself and the company in the chat, yet not everyone takes that opportunity,” Medeiros shares. “If you have the opportunity to do so, do it! You never know who is at the virtual table.”
And while the stats around skyrocketing sweatpants sales paints a picture of what the average remote worker has going on under their desk, Medeiros cautions that “if you wear sweatpants, make sure your top is business professional. It doesn’t have to be a suit, but avoid those ripped t-shirts and pajama tops.”
Keeping the social in social media
Social media continues to be a fantastic resource for connecting digitally. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter all provide rich opportunities for creating and sharing content and building your personal and organizational brands.
Medeiros points to some parallels between social media and in-person events. “Twitter is like a cocktail party, good for quick elevator-style conversations, whereas Facebook and LinkedIn are more like an in-depth, sit-down formal party with opportunity for deeper engagement.”
Before the pandemic, you might reach out to a prospective client or supplier over LinkedIn and set up a coffee meet-up. Medeiros advises that this is still a viable strategy, with one important change. “Replace the traditional coffee date with a virtual coffee date. Send them a gift card for a coffee on you, and then meet online,” she says. “This is a fun way to leave an impression from a networking perspective. And definitely opt for being on-camera over a phone call. It’s always valuable to put a face to a name.”
Take in a conference
Virtual conferences were first held in the early 2000s, but they didn’t really gain traction until 2020, when conference organizers around the world were faced with two options—cancel or deliver digitally. But now that conference goers have had a taste of the virtual conference experience, and with 84 per cent of organizations reporting cost-savings through running virtual events versus in-person ones, it is likely that virtual conferences will have some staying power post-COVID.
While at one point it may have been inconceivable to replicate the live conference experience virtually, technological delivery platforms have definitely risen to the occasion. Medeiros was most impressed by a recent virtual conference she attended.
“The organizers used a platform called Remo,” Medeiros recalls. “When you entered, you were seated at a virtual table and had the opportunity to interact with your fellow table mates. It really replicated the conference round table experience. It was very easy to connect with others, and there was even the ability to move from table to table and meet new people throughout the day. There are cool new platform features coming out constantly.”
Staying connected with current colleagues
And finally, make sure you find a way to remain connected with your existing network. Medeiros points to her team’s virtual happy hours as something she looks forward to. “It’s a great opportunity to connect with each other, catch up, joke around,” she says.
The reality is that, just like remote working, virtual networking events are likely to stick around for good in some way. And with networking being such a critical component of the entrepreneurial journey, embracing this reality will give you an organizational edge. Proper networking can lead you down the path to your next client, a valuable connector, a money-saving supplier, or maybe even a prospective investor.
Don’t let your networking skills gather rust when there are opportunities galore to flex them virtually. Celebrate International Networking Week with ATB by joining us for two upcoming thoughtful discussions. The first is all about successfully networking in a virtual landscape. And a second event features Alex Putici and Zach Lyster as they share their journey of bringing The Commons and Work Nicer together to grow their resources, growth strategies and community—and the importance of prioritizing mental health when embracing new opportunities.