Have you ever asked a ‘semi-stranger’ for help online? And by semi-stranger, I mean, an online contact. In the day of social media, it is commonplace to find yourself connected to people whom you may have never met in person. As these contacts might contribute to your overall ‘friend’ or ‘first degree connection’ count, just how well you know your contact may impact whether you ask for assistance. After all, besides the people we consider closest, we find ourselves connecting not only with those we know in our professional and local community circles, but also those whom we find to be aspirational, potentially helpful, or simply, just downright interesting.  

As social media can suggest the illusion that a mere connection to a person online makes way for open access to his or her expertise and opinion, it’s important to mind your manners when approaching an online contact for help. 

Here are four things to keep in mind: 

  1. Be friendly and professional in your approach. While you might have met the person through a social platform, don’t assume that it’s okay to be super casual and informal in your communication. Keep your message upbeat, yet in a tone as if you were approaching a business colleague. While it’s important to refrain from using common text abbreviations and expressions, your message should contain sentences free of grammatical or punctuation errors as these errors detract from an overall professional presence. It’s also important to remember the tone of your message — it matters. You may not be face to face with the person, but it’s still important to build a bit of a relationship, or at least, some level of trust. After all, the person on the other end would likely not divulge their best secrets, tips, and contacts to someone they barely know, right?  
  2. You need to be aware that the way in which you communicate needs to promote a trustworthy vibe. What do I mean by this? Recently, I had someone who had recently connected with me on a social platform send a message directly to me that said, “Do you have clients you can refer me? I am a freelancer.” There was nothing else in the message. While I can appreciate the directness of the message, it made me feel as if it were my responsibility to refer clients to someone I don’t know at all. It might not be fair of me to assume that is exactly what the person was expecting, but there are a couple of lessons to consider. How you say things contributes to the willingness of the other person to share information. It’s important to avoid language that sends signals that create mixed messages around your intent.  
  3. Be specific with your request. Just as your approach is important to consider with an online contact, be clear when expressing what you wish to receive. In the freelancer example above, it turned out that she wished for introductions to any helpful contacts in design at clients that work within a geographic region. I found this out after six exchanges over a messaging platform, going back and forth, getting little bits of information each time. Not every one of your online contacts will have the patience nor wish to endure digital ping-pong to piece together your request, so it’s important to communicate what you need upfront in the initial message.  
  4. Recommend the next steps that make an ongoing conversation easy and efficient for both parties. That said, be appreciative of the person’s input and time. In addition to saying thank you, you may want to suggest the helpful methods of how to connect directly with the person so that time and resources are maximized. For example, if your online contact is in a different country, you may want to suggest meeting through an online video platform such as Zoom or Skype for a conversation, rather than requesting they call you on your international phone number. Remember, you’re the one asking for assistance. There’s no guarantee that your contact will help you; however, creating an environment that makes it easy for this person to participate promotes a good chance of it happening. 

Have you networked with online contacts? What tips have worked well for you? Share your thoughts below.