A version of this article previously appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
It has never been easier to network with really busy thought leaders who can have a huge impact on your career.
Ironically, the same tools that facilitate connecting with people beyond your current network, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Quora and Facebook, also make it more difficult for highly networked individuals to sort through their inbound messages and determine which are meaningful and which should be ignored.
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Old School Charm
Prior to the digital age, high-profile people deployed brute force to screen out unsolicited, inbound communications. The most common approach was a dedicated personal assistant or secretary that kept the world at bay. Although these gatekeepers were largely effective, they were also human and thus prone to the effects of charm.
For instance, during the early 1980's, one of my buddies impressed Sam Walton's long-time Secretary to the point that she insisted that Sam have lunch with my young friend. Sam trusted his Assistant to set his calendar and screen out irrelevant encounters. Thus, he didn't hesitate to meet an inexperienced, enterprising retail executive. Throughout the following decade, my friend remained in contact with Mr. Walton and received timely career assistance from him on several occasions.
When expanding your vitrual network, sincerity and charm make a powerful duo, just like in the real world. Absent a human gatekeeper, you can capture a busy individual's attention by crafting a compelling and pithy email subject line, voicemail message, Tweet, Quora or Facebook message.
After over 20-years of working at startups and struggling to get the attention of very busy people, I discovered two sentiments that almost always resulted in a reply.
Monitor the activity of the people you want to connect with and find a valid reason to congratulate them. Review the company's press releases, the recipient's LinkedIn profile, etc. It could be a significant sale to a large enterprise, the opening of a new office, a key hire or a promising partnership. Caution: contrived congratulations will backfire and mark you as a rookie to be ignored.
2. Thank You
It is relatively easy to find something legitimate for which you can offer thanks to your network target. This can be a blog article that helped you make a particular decision or a link in a Tweet that you found helpful. Be specific as to how you were helped and why you are motivated to express your gratitude.
Other Networking Tips
1. Mixing Modalities – Assuming you can reach your network target via the phone, call and leave a brief voicemail message. Then immediately follow up with an email or direct message, noting the reason you left a voicemail.
Some people are phone centric, while others reply primarily on email. In my case, I never listen to my voicemail, while my LinkedIn account is overrun with messages. However, I read all of my email, as well as most of the Tweets which reference @johngreathouse. By sending messages via multiple modalities, you increase your odds of reaching your prospective contact.
2. BCC Email – If you don't have your target's email address, review the press releases issued by their company. In most cases, such releases will include a company contact’s email address, which will tell you the syntax you should use to reach your networking target (e.g, Sue.Who@acme.com).
If no email address is cited in the press releases, send one email with several variations of the contact’s potential email address in the blind carbon copy (BCC) address line (e.g, Sue.Who@acme.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, etc.). This will maximize the chance you will identify the correct email address, without making it overly obvious that you are guessing.
3. Referrals – Seasoned salespeople have long understood the value of referrals. Whenever they are unable to close a sale, they maximize the impact of the interaction by asking for the name of another prospect.
This technique will greatly enhance your reply rate. For instance, in the first line of your email, note: “I was speaking with John Greathouse and he thought it might make sense for us to connect regarding my company’s SaaS solution.” The key to obtaining such referrals is to ask for them. Caution: do not overplay your hand. Never claim a referral that is not legitimate.
4. 9:55 – Call your target a couple minutes before 10:00. This is the most common hour of the day for scheduled calls and many people will answer the phone, thinking it might be their scheduled call starting a bit early. Be respectful of their time and quickly get end your call, but first use the opportunity to schedule a follow-up conversation.
5. Double Dial – Call your proposed contact and allow the phone to ring several times before hanging up. Immediately call again. The urgency of two back-to-back calls increases the rate at which people answer calls from a number they do not recognize.
6. Local Presence – Numerous services allow you to match the area code of the person you are calling with the area code displayed on their caller ID. For example, if you call a 212 number from a phone with an 805 area code, a 212 phone number is displayed on the caller ID of the receiving phone. RingDNA claims that the use of these seemingly "local numbers" increases the rate at which such calls are answered by over 50%.
No matter which of these particular tactics fit your personal style, the most effective way to expand your network hasn't changed from the analog age. Politely and persistently communicate a genuine and compelling reason why the others should connect with you and your network will grow exponentially.
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about that killer burrito I just ate - just startup stuff.