Some things change; others stay the same. You can put LinkedIn down in both columns. Its fresh, new web-browser design is less than two months old, and it might have you rethinking how your profile is set up–hopefully not for the first time. In fact, you should probably consider rebooting how you use your social networks pretty much every time your career takes a turn or moves to the next level. Personally, I’m a lot more selective now about how I connect with people on LinkedIn than I used to be, even though I realize that could change again sometime in the future (more on that in a moment).
But the professional network’s makeover isn’t a wholesale reinvention; LinkedIn realizes that the fundamentals of networking aren’t so contingent or fast-moving. Some rules of conduct are worth following (on- and offline) no matter what. It’s all about getting the balance right. With that in mind, these are the two questions I ask myself to help me decide whether or not to add somebody to my network.
I became a power user of LinkedIn in 2008 simply out of necessity. I’d just moved into a legal marketing role where my job was to build a global alumni program of past employees. Sounds easy enough, right? It wasn’t exactly. When no one could provide me with a list of the firm’s alumni, I had to get creative.
The large, international law firm had a very sterile corporate profile on LinkedIn, but with a carefully crafted outreach message, I used the platform to track down former attorneys, added each of them to my own list connections, then directed them to the firm’s alumni website. Maybe it was a cumbersome process, but it worked. All it took was connecting to a whole bunch of lawyers I’d for the most part never met, then using InMail to communicate. My network ballooned as a result, but I got the job done.
Fifteen months later, I’d moved on to my next career opportunity, but I now had a vast number of LinkedIn connections with whom I shared little more than a common previous employer. So over a long, rainy weekend, I sat in front of my computer reviewing profiles and purging 3,000+ connections down to fewer than 500.
Over the next few years, I grew my LinkedIn network incrementally, considering each connection request based on whether we’d actually ever meet in person or (if not) the likelihood that we’d be introduced by a mutual strong connection. I kept a tighter rein on who was in and who wasn’t until 2015, when I changed gears again and started writing my latest book, Build Your Dream Network.
Nonfiction authors need to be as much marketers as writers, I learned. Perhaps because I was writing a book on networking, I felt this pressure even more acutely. So, hoping for a best seller, I swung the doors to my LinkedIn network open a little wider once again. These days, I have a greater need for a more diverse network of loose ties, but I know that might change again in the future, and I’ll have to do another round of culling.
But if your career needs at any given moment determines how much your LinkedIn network should shrink and expand, that’s not the only criteria. A second guideline I tend to follow is much more fixed.
LinkedIn already includes a useful, built-in networking tip for making better first-degree connections: It now politely suggests what some of us have known for a while–which is that a personal touch is key, no matter what the circumstances might be. “LinkedIn members are more likely to accept invitations that include a personal note,” the platform reminds you every time you’re about to send a new connection request.
When I meet someone new, I try to follow up on LinkedIn within 24 hours, while the meeting is still fresh in my mind (and I suspect theirs, too) on how, when, and where we met. A short note is all it takes to jog someone’s memory: “Shannon, great to speak with you at the Build Institute reception hosted at Comcast.” When you’re reaching out to connect on LinkedIn, the recipient already gets that you want to stay connected, so the system-generated message (“I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn”) is pretty much useless. It doesn’t remind them who you are or what you talked about.
These days, I ignore generic requests to connect, which usually leave me with a handful of unanswered questions:
- That’s nice, but who are you?
- How do I know you?
- Why do you want me to connect with you?
Customizing the connection request eliminates the work for the other person–which is a fairly simple act of networking generosity. If I’m scratching my head about who you are and where we met, I’m not hitting “Accept connection,” I’m reaching for the “Ignore” button. For me, this is a constant even if other things in my life and career are changing. If you’re going to send it, personalize the connection request.
But if you still don’t get a response (from me or anyone), don’t sweat it. The person you’re reaching out to may just be making different connections choices than you are.
Parts of this article are adapted with permission from Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships in a Hyper-Connected World by J. Kelly Hoey.