I – like many of you, I’m sure – am often approached on platforms like LinkedIn, MeetUp or even via email, and asked questions about media, magazines, social media… I’m usually very happy to help – what goes around comes around.
Sometimes however, when I receive a poorly worded, unresearched note that does not contain polite basics like a please or thank you, or even my name spelled correctly, I do feel like ignoring it. Indeed just this weekend I followed up a person who cold-contacted me online to ask about magazine publishing in a rather brash fashion. I did give the benefit of the doubt, and replied straight away as I happened to have a moment to spare on receipt of his initial note; but would you believe, no thank you in reply. Nothing. When I messaged a few days later to ask if he’d received it ok, prompting a, “yes thank you” (or an opportunity for me to let him know that he really needs to work on being more professional in his approach), I received a barrage of other questions back – many of which he could discover answers for by researching just a little bit in the first place.
Instead of focussing on the negative though, I’d like to highlight the messages my colleagues and I do enjoy replying to. They are messages where spelling is checked, some amount of research is obvious, there’s evidence they know who we are and what we do, and they are composed in a succinct, polite and grateful manner.
You’ll find most professionals are happy to help with ideas, mentoring and advice, whether they be editors, bloggers, publishers, producers, performers, entrepreneurs or any other type of business or service provider. There is an etiquette to cold-contacting someone you don’t know on LinkedIn, Twitter, MeetUp, via email etc. Here are my tips on rules for approaching a professional online about business and life advice:
5 Rules for approaching a professional online about business and life advice or opportunities
1. Be diplomatic, not demanding. Perhaps it doesn’t sound like it in your head, but re-read your correspondence (or better still, have someone check it for you) before you press “send”, to ensure your language is coming across as pleasant, not pushy. Keep it short and to the point. Ask reasonable, sensible questions – it’s not up to the person on the other end to give you the Cliffs Notes on whatever you’re aiming to embark on. That is, I’ve basically been asked in the past, “Start from the beginning – I want to create a lifestyle and fashion magazine, how do I write and publish it?” This is information we take years to learn and build on; as much as I’d like to help, you’ll need to do a little bit more research and training than that.
2. Do your research. If you’re approaching a professional for advice, they’ll spot a mile off whether you’re serious, interested and passionate about your purpose, simply by the language you use and the information shared. Yes, of course it’s tempting to seek short-cuts to making a million (or more) off that awesome idea you’ve just had, but, if you’re ignorant about the topic you’re approaching a pro for advice on, it will shine through. Researching the topic will mean you do not come across as a time-waster, and it would be a shame to lose not only a potential mentor, but respect in the industry, simply because the short-cut option (no research and straight to cold-contacting on LinkedIn) is the one you went for. If you do not want or mean to come across as unprofessional, reconsider your cold-contact approach, and know your subject/passion (as you should, if you’re aiming to build a career out of it).
3. Be respectful. People are busier than ever these days. You can show respect by being strategic with the carefully considered questions you ask, by keeping your correspondence polite and succinct, and by demonstrating you have a genuine interest in what you’re talking or asking about. Assuming you’re liaising with a professional in that field, you can be fairly sure they will be enthusiastic about the topic too – if you demonstrate you are, chances are they’ll consider that you’re “one of them”, and be happy to help if they can spare the time. On the respect note too, it’s always a good idea to provide some kind of link, profile image or bio about who you are – that is, I thought it was quite rude to be approached by someone on one of our most common social platforms with a barrage of questions, but no profile picture, no bio or background on who they are. If you’re attempting to network and gain expert advice from a professional you’ve identified online, it’s no good to be operating anonymously (read: highly unprofessional).
4. Be in allowance of the response you may or may not receive. With so many demands on our lives today – both in the office and at home – I can tell you from personal experience and from knowing how my friends operate, lots of people have good intentions to reply with advice or an offer of help, but sometimes it just doesn’t or can’t happen for whatever reason. A non-reply or slow one isn’t always about you (particularly if you’ve been polite, succinct and professional in your approach). That said, you’ve got nothing to lose by reaching out to people for advice, just please consider the other points – basic business and communication etiquette – I’ve made here when you do so.
5. Be grateful. Time is precious and if you are asking for someone else’s advice or insight (especially in the instance where you don’t know them), that’s a big ask – it’s time you’re actually asking for. Don’t take it for granted just because you can quite simply open up a dialogue box on the computer, type in a message and hit “send”. The digital world has opened up so many wonderful portals for seeking advice, growing networks and learning about anything we desire. If you use it wisely, you have the potential to go far.
In the end, consider the same rules as you would for networking in person. That is, you would usually politely introduce yourself, succinctly sell what you’re all about (remember the “30 second elevator pitch”), show your enthusiasm and interest in the person/what they do, and diplomatically ask carefully-considered questions; then you would say thank you.
What’s your experience been with asking or receiving questions via digital platforms? I’d love to know what you think about rules for approaching a professional online about business or life advice – drop me a line in the comments below.
PS Here’s some more helpful advice on how to approach industry pros and peers via email – The 5 Rules of Email First Impressions