Networking is an awkward word. It connotes connecting with people in an impersonal way to get something out of the connection. On the surface, that’s ok, but there’s more to networking than finding people who will help to advance your career.
That’s why I’m a bigger fan of “relationship building” than “networking.” Yes, it’s a matter of semantics, but it’s also an important distinction. Relationship building means you’re meeting people who can potentially be helpful for your career but who are also interesting in their own right.
You’re willing to get to know them and help out when you can, even if you don’t ever get anything out of the relationship. You probably will, but that’s not the point. The point is meeting new people and then seeing if there’s any way to help one another out in the future.
So I prefer talking about relationship building more than networking, but no matter what you call it, networking or relationship building is important for every freelance designer.
Why? Because who you know determines largely who you’ll work for. When people you know need design work done, they’re inclined to work with people they already know, and when their friends need to get design work done, they’re likely to recommend the people they know.
So freelancers benefit from getting to know more people. The more people they know, the more work they’re likely to get, and the more times they’re likely to get referred. It’s as simple as that.
But there’s more to building relationships than just handing out business cards. That’s the kind of networking that’s annoying. Yes, more people will know you exist, which is a good thing, but a relationship isn’t being built, and it’s very likely the card will get dropped into the nearest trash can.
Instead of business card spamming, freelancers should focus on building relationships. They should focus on meeting people who can potentially hire them for work and refer them to others to generate more work. They should focus on getting to know a smaller group of people who will become an active part of their client and referral network.
Yet there’s something else to consider: how to connect with people online. With so many freelancers working remotely, it’s not easy to meet new people and make new connections. You may be working from home for most of the week with few opportunities to meet new people.
That’s why today’s freelancers need to perfect the art of building relationships online. Surprisingly, it can be done.
If you’ve found yourself in the boat of needing to building relationships online, here are seven things to keep in mind.
Tip #1: Say Hi
The first step is to introduce yourself. If you don’t say “hi,” people won’t know that you exist. And in the same way you say “hi” to introduce yourself in a coffee shop or at a conference, you can say “hi” to people online by sending emails or tweets. Here’s what it can look like:
First, you start reading a popular entrepreneur’s blog. He seems really busy, but he would be a great person to get to know. After you get over the thought that he wouldn’t want to hear from you, you reach out and send him an email.
The first one is a simple introduction to let him know that you admire his work. Now he knows that you exist and that you like the stuff he does. He also may check out your website attached to your signature or view your Twitter profile to find out more about what you do.
As long as you aren’t annoying and don’t ask for anything in the first email, most people won’t mind that you’re saying hi and getting in touch. In fact, they may be flattered, which leads us to the next point…
Tip #2: Send Compliments
The next thing you want to do is stay in touch by complimenting them on the things they do. If you really like an update they make to their website, let them know. If you think a new project they’re working on is amazing, again, let them know.
You never want to be obsequious by being overly complimentary, but you do want to reach out and compliment them on good work and things you’re impressed with. The point is to find a way to stay in touch without being annoying. If you get in touch to ask for something, that’s annoying. If you get in touch to provide a compliment, that will be appreciated.
The more you contact them, the more they’ll be reminded that you exist, and the wider the door will be opened for the time you do actually ask for help, advice, or work.
Tip #3: Get “Coffee”
The next thing you can do is ask to go out for the digital equivalent of coffee. In the real world, you can actually go out and get coffee; in the digital world, it’s more likely that you’ll hang out on Zoom.
Unless the person is really busy, there’s a good chance they’ll have time to talk, especially if they’re a peer. Many people try only networking with famous people, but they obviously won’t have a lot of free time. If you reach out to talented peers who aren’t as well-known, there’s a better chance they’ll have time for a call and will be interested in “hanging out.”
But don’t let this deter you from ever calling up someone famous or really busy (and by famous, I mean a somewhat well-known online entrepreneur and not Tom Cruise). I’ve had success getting through to CEOs and entrepreneurs who are really busy but happy to help young entrepreneurs and business owners out.
However, if you do decide to ask to get coffee with someone in this category, it’s best to have a specific question in mind. Maybe you want to learn more about their business, or you want advice on how to grow yours. Either way, famous people are likely to commit if you have something specific you’re asking about.
Tip #4: Offer Help
The obvious thing to say at this point is that you need to follow up. But again, that’s obvious. You definitely need to follow up and say how much you appreciated the call, but you also need to continue to stay in touch. One way to do this is by offering help.
Maybe you notice something’s not working on their site, so you let them know. Maybe you realize they’ve made a typo on their homepage, so you reach out so it can get fixed. Or maybe you read an article that’s perfect for them and will help their business. All of these are great ways to stay in touch and to let them know you still appreciate what they do and that you want to help them succeed.
The fine line here is that you need to make sure what you’re doing isn’t annoying. Correcting things too frequently or too strongly will be obnoxious. You don’t want to overuse this as a way to stay in touch, but if something big or obvious comes up, make sure to reach out and let them know you’ve got their back and you’re happy to help out.
Tip #5: Send Referrals
Another great way to stay in touch is to send referrals. Not only are you hoping the person you’ve met will be able to send business your way, but you also want to be a contributor to the relationship and send business their way as well. You can email them directly about business opportunities or refer people and ask them to mention you when they get in touch.
Sharing content is another way to send referrals. Whenever you share something, you’ll spread content that was painstakingly created and send more visitors to your friend’s site. Eventually, the person you’re building a relationship with won’t necessarily owe you, but they’ll appreciate your support and be more likely to help out in the future.
No matter what you eventually decide to do, the most important thing to remember is that the point of networking is to meet people, to get to know them, and to build a relationship. Once you like them and they like you, there’s a better chance you’ll find ways to help each other in a mutually beneficial way.
It’s also important to realize that people can only know and help so many people at a time. The number of relationships any one person can manage is limited. Thus, if you reach out to really busy people, they may not actually have time to get to know you and send business your way, but if you reach out to someone who’s not as busy, they’re more likely to be flattered and to be interested in learning more about you.
For most freelance designers, it’s more valuable to build a smaller network of people that are really interested in what you do and are invested in your success than chasing after thousands upon thousands of Twitter followers. You’d be surprised what developing real relationships with 15 to 25 people can do for your business.