LinkedIn has evolved to become one the most important and most prevalent resources for professional networking available. Used by more than 313 million people on an international scale, it's no wonder why the social network has, for many professional networkers, replaced traditional forms of meeting and socializing.
Whether you network for job opportunities, sales prospects, or just overall experience, it's true that LinkedIn can enhance your efforts--but it's important to acknowledge a few considerations about the platform before you get too deep in your strategy.
1. Not everyone on LinkedIn wants to network.
This is a basic rule you'll need to follow if you want to stay in the good graces of your current and potential connections. New LinkedIn users sometimes get excited about the notion of making new connections, and start reaching out to people they haven't met before. While some users also love the idea of meeting new people and connecting with strangers, others are offended by it, and may feel as if their privacy has been disrespected if they receive such a request.
Obviously, you want to avoid such a scenario, as it could irritate a potential connection. Instead, focus on connecting with people you've already met, or connections of people you've already met. Make sure to let each potential connection know how you found them, and why you want to connect with them.
2. People will judge you based on your profile.
Your profile is the first thing your new connection will look at, and if you haven't met in person before, it's going to form their first impression of you. I don't need to tell you how important first impressions are. Building out your profile is the best way to leave your new (and potential) connections with positive thoughts of you.
What exactly makes a good profile? There are dozens of rules and hundreds of nitpicky options you can look at, but the fundamentals are mostly intuitive:
3. Your personal brand should be treated like a brand.
A brand is a created identity, and while yours should be based on your real personality, it should also be refined and treated like a professional company brand. As you network more on LinkedIn and engage in different discussions with different people, your audience and your network should all receive a consistent experience. That means your image, your personality, and even your language need to be in sync with each other.
Developing your personal brand will give people the consistent, desirable experience they want, and eventually, they'll want to come back to you to repeat that experience. Connect your LinkedIn profile with your other social media profiles, and widen your audience while keeping your personal brand uniform. It's good to show some of your unique personality, but do remember that LinkedIn isn't a place to make emotional or personal updates--it's a professional network, first and foremost. For more information on building a personal brand, see my article, "5 Steps to Building a Personal Brand (and Why You Need One)."
4. People will notice spam and advertising.
Most connections, and most people in general, hate the idea of being advertised to. The second they understand that a message was specifically constructed to sell them on something, the authority and credibility of the message are immediately destroyed. If any of your messages or connection attempts are seen as spammy or as attempts to advertise your company or personal brand, your audience will immediately turn away from you.
Write specialized messages for your audience--in your profile, in your connection attempts, and in your discussion comments. Make sure people know that you aren't just trying to reach out to them for artificial connection building or a blind attempt to get more business. Be yourself, and write unique messages with unique content to avoid seeming robotic or impersonal. No matter how good you think you are at subtly advertising, people will be able to detect it, and you'll lose credibility when they do.
5. A personal touch goes a long way.
Just like in real life, people on LinkedIn crave personal acknowledgement, and if you give it to them, you'll wind up in their good graces. You'll want to start each possible connection on a note of personal interaction; when you request to connect with a new person, write them a message about why that connection is important to you, and include personal details so the other person knows you're being sincere. Sending the default "Hi, I'd like to connect" message will make you seem distant and unapproachable.
Then, follow up with your connections on a regular basis. If you see it's someone's birthday, someone's work anniversary, or someone's new job or promotion, send them a congratulatory letter. Take every opportunity you can to build your relationship with tiny personal touches. Over time, your connection will grow much stronger.
6. There is real power in Groups.
Don't just stick to personal profile updates and private messages with your connections. Use the power of Groups to boost your potential network and reach people you've never met in a familiar setting. Sign up to be a part of as many Groups as you deem appropriate. Learn the intentions and etiquette of each group, and get involved by starting discussions and responding to comment threads that are already in progress.
The real opportunity in Groups is getting the chance to introduce yourself to new people without the breach of etiquette that comes in blindly reaching out to new connections. In a Group setting, people will become familiar with your personality and authority, and it's highly likely that you'll attract new connections without any outbound effort. For more on using LinkedIn Groups for marketing, see my article, "The Definitive Guide to LinkedIn Groups for Marketing."
7. Face to face meetings are still important.
Interpersonal connections can't thrive exclusively on social media. While the digital environment gives us a great platform to start new connections, and easily follow up with ones we've already made, face-to-face meetings are still important to build camaraderie and deepen those relationships. It's not always possible due to geographical limitations and schedule restrictions, but whenever you can, try to schedule a lunch meeting or a cup of coffee with your most important--or your newest--connections.
You'd be surprised how much a face-to-face meeting can mean to a person, even in the digital age. It's not a mandatory requirement for LinkedIn participation, of course, but LinkedIn members who do connect outside the platform tend to be more successful than members who operate exclusively in the online world.
Don't let these truths scare you away from LinkedIn; when used correctly, it's a great tool with few, if any, major drawbacks. But the availability of such a powerful social network also warrants a new set of rules of etiquette. Once you become more familiar with the way LinkedIn works and the best ways to reach out to more connections, you'll be able to build your network of professional relationships and take advantage of everything the platform has to offer. For more information on how to use LinkedIn in your marketing initiative, grab my eBook, "The Definitive Guide to Social Media Marketing."