It can be nerve-wracking to navigate a crowded room of professionals, approach someone you’d like to talk to, and artfully strike up a conversation. Luckily, the days of in-person-only networking have evolved, and it’s perfectly normal (and encouraged!) to make meaningful professional connections online. So whether you’re a student looking to build your professional network, a junior professional job hunting after a layoff, or a mid-level employee thinking of a career change, here are a few ways to start. 

Identify your biggest supporters

Think back on the people who have been your biggest cheerleaders. Is there a college professor who typically pushed you to go the extra mile? A mentor from your previous job who always offered sound advice? Maybe you have a family friend who’s well-connected in an industry you’re hoping to break into. Now’s the time to reach out. Send them an email, message them on social media, or connect on Zoom. The biggest beginner’s mistake is to only reach out when you need something, like advice or a referral. So, be sure to reach out regularly to maintain your relationship — touch base every few months or so to share life updates and check-in. 

Look up your college alumni

Sharing an alma mater with someone automatically gives you common ground to start from. Check your college’s alumni resources to see if they offer an updated directory, or conduct a simple LinkedIn search to view your fellow alumni’s work history. When you find someone you’re interested in connecting with, send them a short message of introduction and ask if they would be open to answering a few questions about their career path. Most people will be willing to make time for a fellow alum.  

Join an industry Facebook group

While local Meetup groups are great for connecting like-minded folks in-person, there are great options for connecting with others from the comfort of your home. Facebook features thousands of public and private groups that offer invaluable advice from other professionals from across the globe. Whether you’re an entrepreneur looking to Small Business Networking for advice on growing sales, or an NGO professional seeking to gain fundraising insights from Nonprofit Happy Hour, there’s a group to suit every field. Remember, it’s just as important for you to share your own opinions and experience as it is to learn from others. 

Find companies of interest on LinkedIn

There’s never a bad time to follow companies you admire on LinkedIn (and on all other social media, too!) You’ll stay up to date with the behind-the-scenes happenings, latest projects and initiatives, and get the first word when they’re hiring. Be sure to take a look at the company’s employee pages to get a sense of what a typical career path might look like at that organization. Find someone you’d like to reach out to? If you’re cold-messaging someone, lead with a quick introduction, establish common ground, and ask a manageable question (and definitely don’t ask for a job!) Here’s an idea: Hi Ms. Douglas, I’m a senior and an aspiring marketing professional at St. John’s University, where I run the social media accounts for our student association. I’ve been impressed with how quickly you’ve built your social following online, especially with your campaign on [insert specific example]. I admire your work and I was wondering if you had any tips to grow a social following quickly. Thanks, and congrats on such a successful year! Best, Susie