This second post in the series of tips on making the best possible use of LinkedIn recommends that you adopt from the outset a strategic approach to linking to other people, both in terms of those you invite to connect and those who invite you.

That means that, before you invite anyone to connect with you, it is essential to think carefully about what kind of network you would like to have and what that means for how you build it.

It means taking time to develop a strategy that is right for you and your business or career objectives and how being on LinkedIn can help you achieve those objectives

LinkedIn logoLinkedIn is not Facebook or Twitter where the “friend” or “follower” words have fairly loose connotations. LinkedIn is a professional network and there is at least an official expectation on the part of LinkedIn that the people you connect with will be people you know and trust, as explained in this para from LinkedIn’s help pages:

LinkedIn believes that when it comes to building your network, it is all about the quality of the connections and not about the quantity of connections. Your network should be centered on quality of knowledge, resources, skills and advocacy that LinkedIn can help unlock.

There are a couple of practical challenges in implementing this. First, there is the fact that while recommending that approach, LinkedIn also provides the tools to start inviting people and you could be inclined to start using them straight away. The help screen on this says:

LinkedIn provides the Build Your Network feature on your homepage to help you build your network of connections. This feature helps you identify and send invitations to colleagues and classmates as well as contacts from your address books that may already be using LinkedIn.

Nothing wrong with that, but there is a risk, as I say, for people new to LinkedIn, of using the inviting tools straight away, without first thinking through the implications. I would find that paragraph more in line with LinkedIn’s official approach if it said something like “identify and send invitations selectively to colleagues…”

As for inviting contacts from an address book, I don’t know about you but I do know that I have a lot of email addresses in my address book of people I know hardly or not at all and some of people I don’t actually want or need in my professional network.

LinkedIn for Recruiting bookThe second challenge is that if you ask someone for advice, or join a LinkedIn-related group or forum, you could well be receiving advice to the effect that the official LinkedIn line on this topic is impractical or that it does not make good business sense, that the smart thing to do is to build as large a first level network as you can, so that you will then have access to more and more people in the larger network. This approach is sometimes described as “digging the well before you are thirsty”. Put another way, the argument is that it is better to have all the connections you might possibly need, as soon as you can, for the day when you actually need one of those connections.

If you have been on a LinkedIn-related group or forum or read blog posts which go into the subject of how to make best use of LinkedIn, you may have come across discussions of this issue, sometimes called the “quality versus quantity” debate. Although I think that description is too limited and does not accommodate the various nuances in any serious discussion of the matter, it does tend to be the standard framework of discussion about how many people you should aim to have in your first level of LinkedIn connections.

In LinkedIn for Recruiting, co-authored by Bill Vick and me, we explained the common usage of these terms  as follows (p 17):

  • “quality” in the sense of a small, tight network of people one can work with, know and trust, or
  • “quantity” as in a lot of people, who can provide a great deal of access.

My own preference is to choose the “quality” approach and be very selective, which means I have a much smaller first level network, 495 as of today – and that has taken several years to build – compared with networkd of friends of mine who have first level networks in the thousands and for whom the concept of a first level network being too big is laughable.

Mind you, my comparatively small, tight network of 495 people gives me the capacity, through introductions along the LinkedIn network of trusted relationships, to connect potentially with over nine and a quarter million people who are at most only two more removes of connection from me.

my LinkedIn network as at 7 April 2009

But I acknowledge that other, often very successful people have a different view. Actually, ane friend – a recruiting headhunter – told me bluntly over a coffee one day not so long ago that I was “wrong” in even trying to present a case for the more selective, “quality”-focused approach. I am not wanting to say here that my way is better than theirs. And I doubt that even the most determined advocates of having the largest first level network possible would say they are not interested in quality.

I doubt that the “quality versus quantity” debate will ever be resolved on one side or another. In fact, I believe that it is not so much a matter of two distinct “sides” as positions along a spectrum.

What I do know is that it makes sense to pause before you send out invitations to a whole bunch of people, inviting them to join you on LinkedIn, and first think through, strategically, how you want LinkedIn to work for you. Then think about who, in your circle of known, trusted professional connections, you would like to have as your initial group of connections, and invite them to start the ball rolling. You may well find that a number of them are already on LinkedIn and will be pleased to see you there too.

You can send out more invitations as often as you choose. Once you have an initial group set up it will be easy to invite more, which seems to me a much more congenial approach than inviting a huge number at first and then having to drop some of them later because their being on your list doesn’t suit you.

And then, before you invite anyone, think about how you would like to be invited if the boot was on the other foot.

Would you be happy to receive the boilerplate invitation?

I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.

Or would you like something a bit more personal, perhaps with something in it about why that person would like you to do that, perhaps something about how that might be of benefit to you, perhaps an offer by them to be of assistance in helping them with their networking, should you need that at some stage?

I don’t actually have a problem when people I know well and respect send me one of those “off the shelf” invitations. But I often wonder how many thousands, maybe millions of LinkedIn boilerplate invitations go unanswered, because the sender chose to not take a little time to craft something a bit more personal. That’s not to say every invitation has to be crafted personally to the individual recipient, but that even a general message you send out should be something that looks like it could come from you rather than being the standard invitation provided by LinkedIn.

The next post in this series, a week or so from now, will be about how to create invitations that have more likelihood of success, not just in getting people to accept your invitation, but in helping you build a strong, mutually helpful network on LinkedIn.

In the meantime, I welcome comments, suggestions and success stories about how to think through your strategy for building your LinkedIn network.

Other tips in this series:

Tip #1: Review Your Profile Regularly

Tip #3: Give Useful Recommendations

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).