We’ve all experienced the highs and lows of having a personal virtual network. We enjoy the highs—reconnecting on Facebook with your best friend from high school—and we suffer the lows—scrolling through a cousin’s Instagram pics of every plate of food she’s ever prepared or been served. Of course, our personal virtual networks are optional. If they’re fun to be in, we can stay. If they get weird, we can leave.

For entrepreneurs, however, participating in business virtual networks is essential, not optional. We want to belong to virtual networks that help us, and our businesses, grow. But we all know that online networks come with risks: wasted time, superficial online connections to people who aren’t really interested in us; dreary, insincere marketing pitches we have to wade through and delete.

So how do we grow virtual networks that support our professional development and our business goals? By being both sincere and mutual. To be sincere, we represent ourselves and our work honestly, without exaggeration. To be mutual, we ask and we give. If we ask our virtual network for referrals, we give referrals, too. To gain followers on social media, we might share our blog posts, but we share and comment on others’ content, too.

Follow these five virtual networking tips and your online connections will help your business grow.

1. Ask questions when you comment, like, or share. If you’re already liking the social media posts of people in your virtual network, that’s great. You’re clicking that Twitter heart button 20 times per day! Liking people’s content can help build your virtual network, but if you want to engage with new people, you’ll have to do more than heart or thumbs-up their posts.

Try asking a question instead. If someone shares a research study you find interesting, like it and ask which finding surprised them most. If someone tweets about a change to a local program for small business owners ask whether they approve of the change. Questions start conversations, and conversations build networks. You’ll get more out of your social media efforts if you engage more deeply each time you respond.

2. Be generous with introductions and smooth the process with an app. You’ve known Frances, a sharp-eyed copyeditor, for years. When Joanna, a former client, mentions she’s writing a business book, the introduction light bulb goes off. Introducing Frances and Joanna is a great idea. While the introduction may not improve your business’ bottom line, it’s a great investment in the quality of your network and your future. A grateful Frances may refer customers to you in the future, and a grateful Joanna may become a client again. And even if neither of those things happen you can simply be happy that you’ve strengthened your virtual network by connecting two members.

If you’ve made this type of introduction in the past, you’ve probably done it by writing a gracious email: “Frances and Joanna, I’d like to introduce you to each other. Frances is an experienced copyeditor and Joanna is a business expert who’s writing a book …” The downside of email intros is that you may never know whether people connected, or they may not follow through on the introduction.

Consider using an app like You Should Meet or Bridge to facilitate your business matchmaking. These apps prevent endless email threads and give you, the connector, an easy way to keep track of your introductions and receive feedback from the people you introduced. Recently, Jay Mandel, a long-time member of my virtual business network and Founder of The Collective NYC, used Bridge to introduce me to Jocelyn Brady, CEO of Scribe and a kindred writer-storyteller-trainer. The Bridge app’s automated reminders about the intro bugged me a little at first, but they did cause us to actually set up a meeting. Jocelyn and I had a great getting-to-know-you phone call, so I was glad for the app’s help.

3. Rediscover the intimacy of talking to people on the phone. With so many people working from home, we’re thoroughly fatigued by virtual meetings. Our eyesight is strained from staring at the screen, and our good “webinar shirts” are getting worn out.

Switch things up with your virtual business network. Instead of proposing an online meeting, schedule a phone call with that person whose blog you love or whose tweets you always share. People are often better listeners when they’re on the phone than when they’re online and you’ll avoid all that webcam eye contact weirdness while you’re building this new connection. Plus, there’s the novelty of talking on the phone, which can help when you’re trying to extend your network.

4. Exploit every feature, facet, and opportunity on LinkedIn. It’s a mistake to dismiss LinkedIn as “Business Facebook.” LinkedIn is more sophisticated and focused than ever. And during this year’s shutdown, I’ve noticed a big jump in the openness and supportiveness people are showing on LinkedIn. In my experience, it’s become a more generous online place with people sharing offers to help furloughed workers connect to potential employers and lots more commenting on and sharing of posts and articles.

Improve your LinkedIn skills right away. Learn all the tips and tricks, like how to tell when your connections are online and available for messaging or how to filter your connections by location, a feature you’ll definitely want to use if someday you want to meet a member of your virtual network at a local café. LinkedIn Learning is offering these online courses for free until March 2021: Getting Started With LinkedIn and Digital Networking Strategies, so if you invest a little learning time, you’ll get a lot more out of this purpose-built channel for virtual networking.

5. Quickly step away from the posers and the users. The more virtual networking you do, the more you’ll encounter people who fake interest in getting to know you or who only want to take, not give. You’ve probably already received a LinkedIn message or an email that starts like this: "I am contacting you as I want to share the knowledge that I accumulated during the past 40+ years as a leader in the software and technology industry with a broader audience…"

When it comes to “networking” messages like these, trust your common sense. Ignore the message and quietly un-connect or un-follow the sender. Don’t waste emotional energy reacting to this type of contact. Just focus your efforts on sincere people who’ve done a little bit of homework to learn about you before reaching out to you online.

Expect some awkwardness. Virtual networking can include some of the same social discomfort you experience when networking in person: not knowing how to break into a conversation, saying the wrong thing, mixing up two people with similar names or forgetting where one person works when you’re making an introduction. But for many people who are shy about in-person networking, virtual networking is a dream: the same rewards but without the badges, business cards and handshaking. If you want a virtual community that will lift you up and help your business grow, you can handle a little bit of awkwardness, right?