Op-ed: How COVID changed networking - for the better

virtual networking

I really struggle with small talk. Funny, right? 

After 35 years as a reporter, news anchor and entrepreneur, my credibility and that of my marketing business rests on my ability to connect with people on a deeper level. So no wonder I find small talk tough. I learned early to ask tough questions.

Someone recently called me “intense”. That’s true. Would you say that the pandemic had the same “intense” effect on you? I think it forced us to tackle some pretty tough subjects that we wouldn’t have had the courage to tackle under normal circumstances. 

For example, we’re openly talking about mental health. I think that’s helping us nurture our business relationships in ways we’ve never done before. We are now more authentic. Heck, we introduced our pets to Zoom calls while wearing flannel pants. And, yes, maybe we were “intense” at times, but it broke down barriers and I believe that’s going to be good for business. 

Even before COVID, superficial networking for me was never the goal, and I counted down the minutes until I could ditch my high heels after an event. More than ever, I wanted authentic connection. I needed people who shared the same values and beliefs. People I could trust. 

My chosen family is my inspiration. So, I decided to “keep it in the family.”

Let me give you an example. Recently, I hosted a networking event with some consultants from within our firm and some clients who have layer upon layer of business connections. We’ve all become friends. 

Some would say don’t do business with friends. But in my line of work, it’s the only way we do business because collaborating with people we trust is important. Don’t you want to do business with people you trust?

That’s the difference. And it’s a very big difference. Networking isn’t a name on a business card. Connecting is a personal and meaningful relationship based on shared values. It also means protecting your inner circle, as you would with “family.” 

So, let’s talk about actually connecting and networking and how we do that effectively, because we look at quality and definitely not quantity. And that helped us thrive during COVID.

You can scream into the wind in marketing, or you can focus on what actually creates results. So, “keeping it in the family” is an extra tool and, post-COVID, we need all the tools we can get, right?

Networking during COVID was hard because with no events, frayed nerves, exhaustion and just trying to keep their businesses alive, many didn’t know how to meet others without the old tools … but they could have turned inward and not outward. Cold calls were not the answer during COVID, and going forward, I hope it never goes back entirely to that.  

What happened for us was that our clients started to refer us to their clients because we had proven our worth to them. And we ended up growing. The second thing we did was that we volunteered our time to help our community in need.

Now, about cold calls, I lost patience more quickly with LinkedIn connection requests that resulted in someone wanting a “personal” favour shortly after joining my network. That immediately tells me what their values are and, again, our group is about aligning values, so I invest my time in the people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the personal groundwork it takes to build trust. Get to know us first.

And speaking of values. Know your audience! LinkedIn is not a dating app. It shocks me that I need to point this out. Just like in real life, I went to that “place” to network, not date. It would be like going to an in-person networking event and someone thinks they are at a speed dating event. Know the room, people!

When I explained this to a prominent businessman, he was shocked. The woman I was standing with looked at him, surprised he didn’t know. We thought male leaders knew. 

Come on. Knock it off, guys. As they say, “There’s an app for that.”

I think, like everything else, COVID was brutally hard for us. Many businesses did not survive, and it has forever changed us. 

So what if we’re a bit intense at times? It means we’re looking deeper at our connections and trying to learn to do better. Maybe in the end we’ve learned more about our values, too. Looking inward can’t be a bad thing.

Kimothy Walker is the CEO of Tiger Lily Marketing, a strategic alliance of senior communications experts. Before that, she spent 25 years with CTV Ottawa as a producer, reporter and anchor.