People tend to either cringe or become giddy at the thought of interacting with total strangers. Yet we all do it for the sake of professional networking. Sometimes it involves mingling in a physical location, but increasingly, these activities are taking place online. Virtual networking is becoming more prevalent. (That’s a definite bonus for the cringing group mentioned above.)

Many of us attend conferences and other professional gatherings where we’re able to make new connections face-to-face with panelists, keynote speakers, or fellow attendees. But what happens when the event ends and your nametag is tossed in the wastebin? Just what do you do with all of those business cards?

Conversely, there may be some influential folks who you’d like to connect with, but haven’t had the chance to meet in person (and perhaps won’t anytime soon due to scheduling conflicts or great distances).

How can you network with these individuals in a way that reflects your authenticity?

Few people embrace a cold email or LinkedIn message; most professionals consider such efforts unoriginal and insincere, if not a sign of outright spam.

Below are proven approaches to one side of virtual networking: making new connections.

1. Notice who’s talking, and where.

Is there a Slack channel or Twitter chat where others in your industry (or that of your customers) gather regularly to discuss current trends or issues?

If so, plan to join a session, and take note of those who are most engaged, most influential, and most thoughtful. You can gauge this by:

  • Seeing who is most vocal—offering responses, insights, and advice.
  • Paying attention to who is most frequently tagged or retweeted by others.
  • Looking at those whose content appears to be original or thought-provoking (regardless of how “popular” they seem in the chat).

All are worth paying attention to and keeping on your radar.

2. Start a conversation.

Compared to seeking out a conversation partner in a roomful of strangers, breaking the ice online is easy. Once you’ve gotten a taste of others’ expertise, you’re better equipped to ask them a question, offer a well-timed comment, or shore up relevant advice.

For example, maybe there’s a Reddit or Quora thread that could use your expertise. Give others a chance to respond, and when they do, don’t let the conversation fall flat. As in tennis, volley back-and-forth a bit (always with the goal of being helpful and not aggressive) in order to make a memorable impression.

You’re no longer a silent observer or passive follower; you’re now an active part of this person’s virtual networking community.

3. Send an invite.

Once you’ve shed your relative anonymity with this person, you can invite them to connect with you on a variety of platforms. (It’s not recommended to send more than one invite within a short period of time, though, so choose the platform carefully.)

LinkedIn is the obvious choice for most professionals, but Skype has its advantages as well. For one, there’s greater potential for an impromptu text chat or quick call. If their email address is visible in a public profile, you can even drop them a quick note with a more personal request.

You also can opt to follow influencers on ProductHunt, Twitter, Instagram, etc., and expect them to follow you back now that you’re acquainted.

4. Show up consistently.

When it comes to visibility, you don’t want to be a Loch Ness monster (one sighting then it’s gone!) It’s not enough to be merely involved in virtual conversations that matter to your field; you need to make recurring appearances, as familiarity breeds likability.

If you’re a member of a Slack channel, set a time every day or two that you can dedicate to interacting with others. If there’s a hashtag for a regular Twitter chat, or one that’s used during specific times of year by an organization, mark your calendar and join in the conversation.

Remember that while small talk is helpful toward building initial rapport, be sure to always contribute something of substance that you wouldn’t mind others stumbling upon later.

5. Thank them.

Showing a little gratitude goes a long way. If someone has shared content that inspired you, or made a helpful suggestion that impacted your work, say so—publicly. There are multiple channels available. You could do this via a tweet, a direct message, or a public update tagging them, possibly even injecting some humor with a well-timed gif.

The key is that your post must be sincere. People are likely to remember those who have genuinely appreciated them, and others will take note of your thoughtfulness. (This kind of gesture also works for those who may not know you very well, or at all, such as bestselling authors, industry experts, and company founders.)

Who knows? Maybe you’ll start a gratitude chain.