Networking is essential to professional growth. It’s through that relationship-building in which you open doors to possible career opportunities, find trusted mentors, and meet individuals who challenge and broaden your worldview.

It’s also one of the benefits of online learning. By enrolling in an online course, you join a group of like-minded peers who come from different professions and backgrounds. Each student offers a unique perspective and skill set that could help you achieve your career goals—but you first need to know how to effectively build and maintain your network.

How to Network as an Online Student

1. Introduce Yourself

In a traditional classroom setting, you typically introduce yourself to students nearby. But in an online course, your peers could be seated cities, states, or even countries away. Don’t let the distance deter you; introduce yourself on the discussion boards. It could be as simple as sharing your name, location, and motivation for enrolling in the program. You might surface commonalities in the process that you could later leverage when contacting classmates via email or LinkedIn.

After introducing yourself, regularly engage in conversation. Ask questions, respond to others’ comments, and share resources. The more active you are on the discussion boards, the deeper the learning experience—and your professional connections—will be.

2. Use Technology to Your Advantage

If you still prefer to network in person, there are several free video conferencing tools, such as Skype and Google Hangouts, you can use to facilitate meetings and share real-time feedback. As an added bonus, networking via video makes it easier to pick up on someone's subtle nonverbal cues, which can help you improve your overall communication and foster more meaningful relationships.

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3. Bring Shared Value to Your Network

Don’t be afraid to ask your network for help. In fact, research from Harvard Business School Professors Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino shows that people who seek advice seem smarter and, in the process, encourage knowledge sharing among their peers.

What you want to avoid is continuously requesting guidance without returning the favor. Ask your contacts, “How can I help you?” Not only can that simple question strengthen your relationships, but it can also help establish you as a thought leader on a particular topic, like business analytics or financial decision-making. You could become the go-to resource your connections refer others to whenever a new project or business need surfaces. Just make sure that if you agree to help in some way, you follow up on that promise.

4. Establish and Maintain Your Online Presence

If you want your classmates to learn more about you and your professional background, focus on establishing an online presence. It could be as simple as creating a profile on LinkedIn—the social networking site that 94 percent of recruiters use to vet job candidates.

When setting up your LinkedIn profile, make sure you:

  • Upload a professional photo that features a simple background and makes you the focal point
  • Create a compelling headline that speaks directly to your audience and your specialty
  • Detail all relevant work experience and quantify what you accomplished in each role
  • Add links to relevant sites, such as your online portfolio or company blog, which can help highlight and support your experience
  • Incorporate keywords you want recruiters to associate you with when searching LinkedIn, such as “financial analyst,” “innovation,” or “marketing strategy”
  • Fill out as many profile sections as possible, from your “Volunteer Experience” to “Accomplishments”

As your career evolves over time, so should your profile. Regularly take the time to update your work and educational experiences.

5. Join Relevant Communities

Networking doesn’t need to happen solely within the course platform. Join industry-specific networking groups online, follow your school’s social media accounts, or research whether your program offers relevant meetups in your area. For example, Community enables HBS Online participants and other business-minded professionals to connect in-person in cities all over the world.

Related: 3 Time Management Tips for Online Learners

6. Find Ways to Follow Up

Building your professional network is just the beginning. You also need to maintain that network. Set aside time every month or two to reconnect with your contacts. Consider sharing an article that reminded you of them or a relevant webinar you think is worthy of watching. Or say congratulations if you spot exciting news published about their company or saw they recently started a new job or took on additional responsibilities within their current company. Those small gestures can go a long way in sustaining relationships.

The Value of Networking

By prioritizing relationship-building, you can advance your career while helping others do the same. A quick conversation or new connection could be what helps land your next job or encourage you to ask for that promotion. But you will never know unless you introduce yourself and start networking.

If you’re interested in pursuing an online education, explore our online course catalog and discover how you can advance your career.

Lauren Landry

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she's not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who's willing to listen terribly corny jokes.