Online networking is a great way to build your profile and generate interest around your business. You can get to know other business owners, make useful connections, and even meet new customers and potential collaborators—even if you’re working from home!
In this post, we cover how to network online using LinkedIn. In my experience, it’s the best professional networking website out there for small business owners and one of the most effective online tools for freelancers. Follow these steps, and they’ll help you keep moving forward even while your local in-person networking events are canceled.
Step-by-step guide to successful online networking on LinkedIn
What’s so great about LinkedIn? If you’re self-employed, have a side-hustle or just want to advance your career and you’re not on LinkedIn yet, it’s time to get on board. LinkedIn is like Facebook for business. It’s an online platform where professional people connect, share content, and post job openings. And in my experience, it’s one of the best places to make connections online, keep up with networking while working from home, and raise your profile as a small business owner or freelancer—making it the perfect companion to your company website or freelancer website. As the saying goes: “It’s not what you know—it’s who you know.”
Here’s the process that’s helped me build my professional network, grow my business, and get clients on LinkedIn.
Looking for other ideas? Here are 6 networking alternatives to LinkedIn.
1. Set up your LinkedIn profile
The most important elements to your profile are a professional headshot photo (no mirror-selfies, please), a clear headline, and an engaging bio that draws readers in and tells them more about who you are and how you can help. It should be kind of like a personal elevator pitch that gets people interested in you. If you’re brand new to LinkedIn or want to revive your 2006 profile, check out John Espirian’s LinkedIn Starter Guide for some no-nonsense tips.
2. Start building your network (gradually)
LinkedIn works in a similar way to Facebook, except you send “connection” requests instead of friend requests. When you first sign up, LinkedIn will suggest people you might already know—from previous employers to old school chums. Asking to connect with these people is a great way to start networking online because the more connections you have, the more member profiles you’ll be able to see. And if you notice someone that could be a potential client or business ally, they’re more likely to accept if you have a connection in common.
3. Personalize every single connection request
Every time you hit “Connect” on LinkedIn you’ll see a popup window appear with the option to “Add a note.” There are lots of spammers and shameless salespeople on LinkedIn, so this is your chance to stand out from the crowd. Don’t jump right in to a sales pitch, introduce yourself, try to nod to some common ground (are you from the same neighborhood, do you have a previous colleague in common, or are you in the same sector?), and say why you’d like to have them in your network (do you want to connect with other freelancer graphic designers, did one of their posts make you think, or is your company looking for people with their skill set?). Keep it thoughtful, friendly, and light.
TIP: Don’t spam! If you don’t have a genuine reason to connect with someone, use the “Follow” button instead. This way, you will see that person’s posts in your feed and can engage with their posts naturally, when you have something to contribute. This feels more genuine and gives you a chance to build a rapport without being needy. For more on this, go to Step 5.
4. View profiles you’re interested in
Viewing someone’s LinkedIn profile is like giving them a smile and a wave in real life. When someone views your profile, you’ll get a notification like this: “Jim Beam viewed your profile.” It’s a good way to start a conversation with fellow freelancers in your niche, business owners in your area, potential customers, or other professionals with skills that you’re looking for.
When you click on someone’s LinkedIn profile, they’ll get a notification saying you’ve looked at it. If you have a free LinkedIn profile (like most people), you’ll see the five most recent people who’ve viewed your profile. You can upgrade to a paid plan if you want to see more “viewers” but this is definitely not essential!
If there’s someone you want to connect with, I find it’s always polite to view their profile as a way of showing that you’re genuinely interested in what they do. This might be enough to prompt them to view your profile back or even send you a request, or they might do nothing—then you can go to Step 5.
5. Follow, follow, follow
Okay, so you’ve sent connection requests to Billy from accounts and your buddies from high school. But what about the industry leaders you’d really like to connect with but you’ve never met? Successful business owners, mentors, and influencers are likely getting hundreds of requests a day so you’re likely to get a hard “No” or slip through the cracks entirely. In these cases, the “Follow” button is your friend.
When you land on a profile and click “Follow,” you’ll start seeing all the content this person shares in your LinkedIn feed. It’s like a way to say, “Hey, I’m interested in who you are and what you do,” without sending a pre-emptive connection request that’s likely to get rejected. You can also follow companies, so I recommend following your competitors, brands you like, and companies you might one day like to work with.
6. Read, comment, engage
When you log in to LinkedIn you’ll see your content feed, just like you would on Facebook and Instagram. You’ll see posts from your connections, brands, and people you follow, plus some sponsored content (advertisements). This is where the real magic happens!
Make a habit of reading posts and articles from people you follow and you’ll soon find opportunities to get involved in the conversation. Don’t just comment for the sake of it though—wait till you can say something relevant that brings something new to the conversation or offers a different perspective on the topic. This will help you get noticed, especially if you can showcase your expertise at the same time.
This is my favorite way to strike up a conversation with people I’d like to eventually have in my professional network. It might take one comment for them to notice you or it might take months of engagement, but keep at it and send a personalized connection request once you’ve shared a few conversations. This is like the difference between making a “cold call” as a salesperson and visiting a prospect you’ve already crossed paths with. The second feels much more natural.
How to use LinkedIn’s search function to make connections and find work
With LinkedIn’s search function, you can look up People, Jobs, Content, Companies, Schools, Groups, and Events. All these are useful in their own right but I recommend focusing on People to start with, then moving on to Content, Groups, and Events. In this section, I’ll cover how you can use these search options to find relevant professionals to connect with and job opportunities.
- People: search for your ideal connections
- Content: find opportunities to engage and connect
- Groups: network and share ideas with likeminded people
- Events: find virtual networking events
People: search for your ideal connections
As a copywriter and UX writer, I might want to network with other UX professionals in my geographic area (by searching “UX writer” + my hometown). Or, I could find people with complementary skills (by searching “UX designer” or “Product designer”) with the intention of learning from them, following their career path, and even referring job opportunities to each other down the line.
Depending on how well you know the person, you can request to connect with them or use the “Follow” button as described in the steps above. Remember, if you’re looking for new clients or potential clients, the bigger your network, the more likely you are to catch posts about relevant opportunities.
Content: find opportunities to engage and connect
LinkedIn’s “Content” search feature is a goldmine for freelance work. You won’t only find officially listed “jobs” here—those have their own section—but you can find posts from people looking for services and recommendations.
Let me explain.
The Content filter lets you search for keywords in articles, posts, and comments that might be relevant for you. For example, if you’re a florist looking for work in Boston, try searching “Looking for a florist Boston” or “Florist recommendations Boston” to find anyone that’s posted looking for your services. This strategy takes a bit of time, but it’s a great way to network with potential clients or future employers. Again, you can either engage with the post, request to connect with the person, follow them, or look up their company and get in touch directly.
Groups: network and share ideas with likeminded people
Just like Facebook, LinkedIn has a group for almost every purpose! In the example below, I’m looking to connect with other small business owners in Boston by searching for “small business + Boston.” The people in these groups are likely looking to build their networks too, so it’s a good way to get started with online networking if you’re not confident reaching out to people directly yet.
Events: find virtual networking events
Today, more and more event organizers are offering live networking alternatives. Some have even moved their events completely online, especially during the recent pandemic, thanks to the huge selection of live video streaming tools that are now available.
You can use the “Events” filter to find out what’s being run by businesses in your local area (so eventually, you might be able to join in-person) or search using keywords that match your industry or niche. For example, “London + business networking” or “UX networking.”
You can often find online courses and webinars this way too. The best bit? Lots of them are free to attend so you can boost your skills even while you’re trying to cut costs in your business.
Networking on LinkedIn is a great way to build your profile and grow your business along with these other professional networking tools—especially if you work remotely or local networking events are thin on the ground. Besides that, running a business can be tough on you emotionally and if you’re going through a professional crisis of confidence then building your network online can help you ease yourself into networking in real life. Although if you follow these steps, you might never have to!