Building a professional network online: How to connect with your peers and working professionals in a virtual environment

In today’s job market, building a strong online professional network is essential to expanding your job opportunities and advancing your career. This article explores the ins and outs of professional networking and offers strategies to help you cultivate, maintain, and grow your pool of contacts to help you achieve your goals.

What is professional networking?

Professional networking involves developing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with people in your field. Whether you’re currently looking for a new job or you want to build your personal brand by leveraging professional relationships, networking is a critical skill to cultivate.

There are a variety of online venues where networking professionals congregate, including online student and alumni groups at universities, virtual professional networking events, professional associations, and social media sites such as LinkedIn and X.

Why is professional networking important?

Professional networking is important because it provides a forum for developing your knowledge and competencies while helping to advance your career.

Although your primary goal for interacting with networking professionals may be to receive job leads or referrals, a robust professional network can also be a source of career advice and industry insights, a means to connect with new talent for your employer or business, and a way to build your client or consumer base.

As a bonus, you may also find that the people you meet while networking eventually become a part of your friend group, thus enriching your personal life as well.

Tips for building your online professional network

It’s imperative that you are deliberate and proactive to be successful in your professional networking efforts. Read on to explore three key strategies to help you expand your online professional network.

Take advantage of social media and other apps

Social media sites, including online forums, networks, and communities, can be invaluable resources to help you make new professional contacts in your industry and stay connected.

When it comes to online professional networking, LinkedIn is an obvious choice due to its many benefits and features. After you’ve created your personal profile, you can:

  • Add new contacts (and receive suggestions)
  • Apply to job posts
  • Research companies that you’re interested in
  • Highlight your resume, skills, and experience
  • Demonstrate your credibility through recommendations from coworkers or clients
  • Join groups and engage in discussions
  • Post content related to your field
  • Interact with and comment on other people’s posts

If you have your own business, you can create a company profile to use as a promotional tool to help you attract clients—or as a recruitment strategy for new hires.

In addition to groups or communities on Facebook, X, WhatsApp, or other social media, you can take advantage of networking apps specifically designed for working professionals, such as Bumble Biz, Lunchclub, Fishbowl, Meetup, and Guild.

Join professional organizations and associations

Professional associations are designed to provide networking and career opportunities, offer continuing education, and advocate for industry-specific legislation. As such, membership with these organizations can be a great resource to help you meet professionals in your field, connect with job opportunities, stay current on industry trends, and gain access to virtual or in-person events.

There are professional associations for almost every industry, whether you work in marketing and communications, healthcare, finance, education, psychology, information technology, science, or another field. And many professional associations have a national presence with local chapters in numerous locations across the country.

Should you wish to explore your options, search for professional organizations by industry, occupation, or association name through this Professional Association Finder.

Attend virtual networking events

Attending networking events is one of the most effective ways to meet new contacts and expand your professional network.

When you’re new to networking, the process can feel overwhelming. To help you feel more confident and comfortable with engaging in conversations and meetings, you may want to consider joining Toastmasters or the Business Network International (BNI).

Websites such as Eventbrite are great resources you can use to search for local in-person and virtual networking events, conferences, and expos.

Below are tips to keep in mind when engaging with networking professionals:

  • Have a goal such as talking to five new people for ten minutes each
  • Make eye contact, smile, and use the other person’s name when speaking
  • Show genuine interest by listening actively and asking questions about your conversation partner’s background, employer, interests, and career goals
  • Try to introduce yourself to someone who is more experienced than you
  • If possible, take brief notes after significant conversations so you can follow up later

Building, maintaining, and growing your online professional network

In addition to convenience and efficiency, there are many other advantages to networking online. For example, when you create a LinkedIn profile, it provides you with an opportunity to present a polished personal brand that succinctly highlights your expertise.

With no location limits and with access to millions of users, social media and networking apps expand your potential reach in a way that is simply not achievable offline. Networking online also allows you to coordinate and communicate in real time and is often less expensive than attending in-person events quickly and easily.

And if you’re someone who experiences social anxiety, virtual professional networking may feel less intimidating than attending an event with a room full of people.

Keep in mind that it’s not enough to simply create new relationships with other networking professionals, you also must put real effort into nurturing these connections. Below are strategies to help you thrive in the online networking space and develop a rapport with people who may benefit your career.

Make a good first impression

When you’re networking online, making a strong first impression is just as vital as it is when meeting people face-to-face. When attending a virtual event, be sure to prepare the lighting, background, and angle beforehand so that you present well on camera.

It can be helpful to rehearse a brief opening statement beforehand so you don’t feel put on the spot when it’s time for introductions. The statement should include your full name, current role, employer or target industry, and your reason for attending the event. For example, “My name is Dana Evans. I’m a senior marketing manager with Citigroup, and I’m interested in learning more about opportunities in the fintech industry.”

Since you won’t be trading business cards in an online environment, have the URL for your LinkedIn profile, portfolio, or website ready to share. Try to relax, be yourself, and don’t be afraid to lighten the mood with humor when appropriate.

Always follow up

The networking process does not end with the initial introduction, event, or engagement via social media sites or apps.

It’s critical that you follow up with the connections you make and send thank-you emails, asking additional questions or providing information relevant to your conversations. If you have next steps in mind, such as scheduling a meeting, you can also include this in your correspondence.

When you follow up with a contact, it shows that you appreciate the time they took to speak with you, helps strengthen the new relationship, and better positions you for a referral for future openings within their organization.

Provide value and stay engaged

Professional networking is most effective when it is mutually beneficial. Accordingly, a great way to maintain your relationships within your professional network is to be of value to others.

When you show a genuine interest in helping your contacts, whether by offering career advice, volunteering to assist them with projects, sharing industry-related insights, or providing job referrals, it strengthens your bonds and makes them more likely to reciprocate.

Along similar lines, it’s essential that you continue to stay engaged once you make new connections. As is often the case with personal friendships, the professional relationship will suffer or end if you don’t stay in contact.

For example, a great way to stay engaged with a new acquaintance is to invite them to a networking event or conference so you can meet in person and get to know each other better, while also expanding your professional networks.

Be patient and focus on quality

Fostering relationships takes time. If you find yourself getting frustrated, remember that a robust professional network is not necessarily just about quantity. Quality—meaning contacts who are skilled professionals in your current or desired career field—is crucial.

When you experience a slump, it’s always beneficial to reach out to people in your work, university, and home life to make them aware of your career goals and that you’re trying to build your online network.

This may include professors in your field, your peers at Penn LPS Online or another university, friends and family members, and co-workers or managers who can speak to your professionalism, knowledge, and skills.

Professional networking takes confidence, vulnerability, and dedication. As is the case with any skill, it gets easier with practice. If you put in the work and take advantage of networking tools and strategies, you may find that the meaningful connections you form will make it all worthwhile.

Expand your professional network at Penn LPS Online

Do you want to tailor an Ivy League education experience to fit your personal and professional ambitions? Then consider the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) at Penn LPS Online.

Choose from eight career-focused concentrations in this accredited liberal arts program, and enjoy flexible and accelerated schedules, high-impact learning, and the opportunity to interact with other passionate online students who are building expertise that employers value.

Or explore certificates that focus on a specific skill set or area of study with a practical, creative, or professional relevance. Whether you want to boost your resume or pivot into a new field, these credentials are designed to enhance your expertise in a short period of time.

Ready to join the Penn LPS Online network? Explore the many concentration options for the Ivy League BAAS degree and certificate programs. You can also register for an online information session, or view our course guide to learn more about what’s available in any upcoming term.

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