First network. Then follow up.
The follow-up email is an important tool in your networking arsenal for staying in contact and enabling future opportunities.
“It was so great meeting you,” I said as I finished jotting down notes. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about your career. I definitely want to stay in touch.”
I hung up the phone, flexed my shoulders, and went to make a grilled cheese sandwich. I had just spoken with a leader in the quantum optics industry who spelled out the skills I would need to thrive. She even promised to recommend me for a job. Networking mission accomplished!
Not so fast, I realized. There was more to this relationship that I had to cultivate. A successful conversation is only the first rung on the networking ladder. The next step is maintaining contact.
After I have spoken with someone, whether over coffee or via phone or Skype, I make a note in my calendar to email that person at a later date. The timing of the follow-up email is based on the nature of the conversation. If someone specifically asks that I respond in a month, I schedule myself a reminder to email on the appropriate date. If a contact mentions she is going to an event that I, too, will be attending, I make a note to follow up approximately three weeks before the event to make an appointment to meet in person.
Generally, I try to check in with my contacts two to four times a year. That can become challenging as you acquire more of them. But even one check-in a year can suffice to keep a partnership going and growing.
When you construct a follow-up email, keep in mind the underlying objectives of networking. You want to foster the alliance, invest in engagement, deliver value, and offer assistance. Here is how to achieve those objective in follow-up emails. Feel free to pick one of the tactics or mix and match.
- Introduce new information about yourself. Since you last spoke with the person, you may have finished a project, published a paper, learned a new skill, or won the Nobel Prize. There are always personal milestones you can share, whether you are an undergraduate, grad student, or 45-year work veteran. Sharing your achievements showcases your talent, drive, and ambition. It is not bragging; you are providing new and relevant information to entice your contact to engage you further—perhaps for future employment.
- Introduce new information about your contact. Do a bit of detective work: Take a look at the person’s LinkedIn or ResearchGate profile, review a publications list, or even do a Google News search. Mention your contact’s new accomplishments and offer congratulations. Show that you are thinking about the person and are invested in her professional success.
- Give the person an action item. Ask a yes-or-no question that requires no more than 30 seconds of brainpower to answer. One possibility is to inquire about a current project: “I read in Physics Today that you’ve started focusing your physics expertise on better understanding the nature of cancer. How fascinating! Do you anticipate collaborating with more life scientists in the future?” Such a query demonstrates that you are keeping yourself apprised of the person’s efforts and advancements and that you are aware of her work. It even hints that you might be interested in joining that person in the future.
- Offer something of value. Provide resources such as articles, videos, information about a new conference or journal, or an introduction to a colleague. Your contact will greatly appreciate your willingness to help, and the gesture will go a long way toward solidifying and fortifying a partnership.
Although I have referenced follow-ups as emails, that doesn’t have to be the only method of communication. Other people may prefer a different type of correspondence, such as texting or Facebook messaging. But I always start with emails and let the other person point me to a different mode if desired. Email is still the professional way to go.
Now go follow up!
Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. She is the author of Networking for Nerds, which was named by Physics Today as one of the top five books of 2015. She can be reached through her website, www.alainalevine.com, or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine. Parts of this article are featured in Networking for Nerds.