LinkedIn is a powerful tool, but it brings out the worst in some people.
As the network seems poised for change--recently, LinkedIn announced that it will soon allow anyone to publish content on its platform (much as LinkedIn Influencers do now)--I talked with David Gowel, CEO at RockTech, and author of The Power in a Link: Open Doors, Close Deals, and Change the Way You Do Business Using LinkedIn.
Here's what I learned about how to leverage LinkedIn without seeming needy, greedy, or just plain annoying:
1. First, remember you're human.
LinkedIn is a virtual network, but we humans do business in the real world. So don't leave your social cues behind. For example, if you saw someone interesting on the street, would you run up, introduce yourself, and then disappear never to talk with them again? That's sort of what you're doing if you send a generic "I'd like to add you to my network" request to someone you don't know on LinkedIn.
It's worse still if you do so and they accept--and then you never follow up with anything useful for your new connection.
2. Learn the site.
LinkedIn claims 277 million users, but it's still dwarfed by Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+. Just as important, its features are very different than those more-populous services. You need to spend time on the site to just watch and listen--and avoid importing some of the social-media habits you've picked up elsewhere.
"The best LinkedIn users know what LinkedIn features fit their job search, intelligence gathering, thought leadership sharing, biz dev, or other business goals," Gowel says. "They also know when they need to use LinkedIn data...and apply the finesse of social etiquette--online and especially offline."
3. Don't overvalue links.
LinkedIn connections aren't especially valuable in and of themselves. Instead, it's about how you can use the site's organizational capabilities to build and nurture real relationships. And yet, Gowel says, it's striking how many people put a lot of effort into making connections in a way that isn't really sustainable.
"Many people have written about sending thoughtful LinkedIn invitation requests to get people to accept them--make it concise, funny, etc. However, just being connected on LinkedIn to someone isn't success," Gowel says. "These 'relationship seeds' often die before they bear fruit. They cloud your network with "false positives".... Months or years later, you don't remember who that person is, or they don't remember you."
4. Rekindle relationships.
Instead, it's more important to nurture real connections. Granted you can and should use LinkedIn to make new introductions, but think of it as a 21st-century version of an old school Rolodex, and rekindle relationships with people you already know.
"It's much better for the long term to use LinkedIn as a way to strengthen your real world network, primarily," Gowel says. LinkedIn facilitates connections, but it doesn't do the work for you, any more than buying a $200 pair of running shoes will get you across the finish line of a marathon.
5. Pick up the phone.
As long as we're talking about strengthening relationships as much as building new ones, Gowel recommends using LinkedIn as a way to foster offline behavior. For example, don't just send email, pick up the phone. Even a brief call can make a deeper connection. It's interactive, and the person you're talking to at least knows you didn't just cut and paste the same message to hundreds of others.
"If you see [on LinkedIn] that your old boss knows a VP at a company you'd like to work in, dial him and say something to the effect of, 'Bill, it's been too long. I was using LinkedIn, and your name came up, so I thought I'd reach out,'" Gowel says.
6. Truly care--and act that way.
As long as we're talking about that sort of etiquette, you don't want to just dive into your business reason for calling once you get a connection on the phone.
If you truly have a relationship, as opposed to just a "link," you should be interested in how his or her life is going, what's new with the family, and what they've been up to. Ask about those things first, rather than asking directly for an introduction to one of his or her contacts.
7. Did we mention it's about building relationships?
How would you react to someone you don't know calling you out of the blue, and quickly rushing to ask to leverage the contacts you've made over your professional life? Probably not too well. So don't do that to others. Instead, nurture your relationship over time. Connect before you have a specific request, just to keep the relationship going. If you have a specific request, maybe even hold off on it until you send a follow-up note, especially if the timing doesn't seem right.
"Worst case, you've at least reconnected with someone you actually know and brought one of those names you always see in LinkedIn back into the real world," Gowel says.
8. Make deposits, not just withdrawals.
Take things a step further than that, even, by proactively looking for opportunities to help your connections, even when there's no direct benefit to you.
Be the one who reaches out with an opportunity or a connection. If you see that someone in your network is looking for a job and you can think of a connection that might help, let them know. If you realize that one of your connections is in the market for a service that another connection provides, be the person who makes the introduction.
9. Measure your success.
Finally, Gowel advises, don't let LinkedIn turn into a "professional version of Candy Crush," in which you waste a lot of time without being productive. One way to avoid that is to keep track of your interactions, including whether and how they bear fruit down the line.
"You can do something as simple as create a spreadsheet listing the people you've asked for introductions," he advises, tracking how long it took to get the introduction, and whether you ultimately achieved the interview, qualified sales opportunity, investor meeting, or other business goal you sought. Of course, there are other, more robust tools to track LinkedIn, as well.
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