In its quest to deliver a more engagement-centered user experience, LinkedIn Corporation has made significant and sweeping improvements to its social networking platform. A more enabling technology with easier navigation, improved site aesthetics and innovations around content curation are sterling examples of LinkedIn’s commitment to strengthening the capabilities and marketing reach of its 250 million-plus citizens. But with the exponential growth that LinkedIn has enjoyed comes the need for more finely-tuned protocols, especially in the ways in which people connect and build cohesive networks. It all starts with a well-crafted and properly-framed LinkedIn invitation, one that provides a point of reference and gives impetus to connect.
On LinkedIn, everybody sets their own rules of engagement and carries out their own professional agenda. We assemble networks at our own rate, according to our own best judgment and commensurate with our ability to balance risk and reward. As your professional network expands, you gain social proximity to more relevant people and increase your potential to make quality connections. Simply put, you become better positioned for business opportunities within the LinkedIn ecosystem.
Reviewing the LinkedIn profile of someone you have met in the real world (or discovered on the site) is the logical first step in laying a foundation for meaningful engagement. However, when it comes to vetting potential connections, intuition and compelling text in a LinkedIn profile will carry the process only so far. The only way to truly discern whether certain people merit inclusion in your LinkedIn directory is to get to know them on a deeper level.
The Etiquette of Connecting on LinkedIn
Just as in real world society, when it comes to online interaction, the adherence to the highest standards of integrity and ethical principles is vital to the responsible functioning of the entire community. Truth in representation, respect for others and accountability for actions shape the social business etiquette that is essential to LinkedIn’s mission. There are strict guidelines in place to ensure that members obey the rules. (If you haven’t perused the LinkedIn User Agreement in a while—or ever—I recommend it. It’s a great read.)
Businesspeople are connecting on LinkedIn in astonishing numbers. Despite the rampant use of the standardized, default invitation—a horrible breach of etiquette and a sin for which many dedicated LinkedIn users offer no absolution—when one party requests the honor of a connection with the other, it is implied as a genuine offer. (By now you should be well aware that personalizing the invitation to connect on LinkedIn is a best practice. It also gives people a shot at recalling you and how and where you met.)
There is a discrepancy that exists between the LinkedIn invitation platform and the ways in which professionals come together in the real world. LinkedIn recommends that you only should send invitations to the people you know well. Of course, you know that as you spend more time and engage more frequently on LinkedIn, you become tacitly aware of others, and vice versa. You will want to invite some of these folks to connect. Our networks are built on the leaps of faith we take in reaching out to people we think will be “good” connections, whether now or down the road. Conversely, we will give the benefit of the doubt on occasion to the invitation from a stranger. The unwritten rule of LinkedIn culture is that professionals connect with each other willingly, amicably and for the right reasons.
The Gray Areas of the LinkedIn Invitation
Think of how businesspeople meet other businesspeople in today’s so-called Relationship Economy. They attend networking events, conferences, symposia and trade shows. They get introduced to each other. They exchange pleasantries, trade business cards and do lunch. Invariably, both parties consent to connecting on LinkedIn and an invitation from one or the other will be forthcoming. Regrettably, the LinkedIn invitation platform does not take many of these first-encounter scenarios into account and the person sending the invitation is tasked with trying to squeeze out some context for the proposed connection. Moreover, professionals are routinely introduced to each other sight unseen—usually via email—or referred by colleagues and clients on the premise that they will connect. These interactions, too, are not addressed and fall outside the lines. In social networking, the square peg does not fit in the round hole.
The LinkedIn engine is fueled by algorithm, inference and suggestion. Some of the invitations that you receive from others are generated through the LinkedIn assumptive model. The People You May Know feature warehouses a collection of professionals that LinkedIn “thinks” might be potential connections for you. Nice as these folks may be, you more than likely have no history with them. Some you might recognize and know, but they are not your colleagues, classmates, clients or friends. Although you have networks and interests in common, and share demographic characteristics, on what basis do you connect? Without knowing their rules of engagement on LinkedIn, you are taking a chance by sending an invitation. (In such cases, you are relegated from personalizing the LinkedIn invitation, a restriction that is highly counter-productive to catalyzing a meaningful relationship.)
“How do you Know This Person?”
In order to connect with another person on LinkedIn, you must first define the relationship at the point of invitation. At the time of this writing, these are the choices given to us in the LinkedIn invitation criteria in response to the question, “How do you know this person?”:
◦ We’ve done business together
◦ I don’t know this person
Some of these selections create a clear-cut basis for connecting. I have clients and students that continue to agonize over how they should assign status to their outgoing invitations, and view those they receive from others that do not fall into the declared relationship class as effrontery. You, too, might resent an approach on LinkedIn if the invitation is not personalized or does not accurately tag the relationship.
Additionally, the process is laden with contradictions:
♦ The mere presence of “I don’t know this person” in this list goes against the grain of a LinkedIn philosophy that encourages (mandates) us to connect with people we know and who know us. This option, which requires prior knowledge of the invitee’s email address, can also set one up for disaster by prompting the dreaded “IDK” (I don’t know this user) response, an invitation decline which is fed to LinkedIn. Collect 7 of these and your account will be suspended. (I have never used this option to connect, nor do I recommend it.)
♦ Stating you are a “friend” to someone when, in fact, you have never met them before, can be construed as deceptive. Claiming to “have done business with someone,” or be a “colleague” when, truth be known, you have never been in the same room together, can border on fraud in the opinion of some. I know for a fact that many LinkedIn users constantly wrestle with this dynamic. (The convention today is to opt for either “friend” or that you’ve “done business together” at your current company, and hope that the invitee will not be offended or view this as a false pretense. I am totally fine with people inviting me in this fashion.)
♦ A shared membership in a LinkedIn group is the least ambiguous and most unobtrusive route to take when connecting. Having one or more LinkedIn group memberships in common gives us a clear path to inviting others to connect and affords us with more affirmative social networking opportunities. (A case can certainly be made for ratcheting up your involvement in large LinkedIn groups. You will expand your reach to appropriate sub-populations and enhance your connectivity.)
In order to account for the gaps in the current structure, and to cover the broad spectrum of how people come together in the course of commerce, I propose that the LinkedIn invitation checklist expand to include these two choices:
◦ Met at a networking event
◦ Introduced by a colleague, client or friend
With this enhanced invitation platform, people would now be able to connect in a more fluid manner, without false labels or perceived misrepresentations, and provide the accurate back-story. There is great comfort in truth.
Now wouldn’t this make things so much easier?
©2014 by J.D. Gershbein. All Rights Reserved. Since 2006, JD Gershbein, CEO of Owlish Communications, has helped advance the collective awareness of LinkedIn and inspired opportunity-oriented professionals in all walks of business to step up and achieve on the site. His message fuses LinkedIn profile optimization, personal branding, respect-based social networking, marketing communication strategy and classical business development techniques with neuroscience and psychology. J.D. is one of the world’s top scholars on LinkedIn, a globally acclaimed speaker and frequent media contributor on social business strategy. He is also adjunct professor of marketing communications at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart Graduate School of Business, where he is advancing social media marketing as an accredited field of study. His book “The LinkedIn Edge: Creating a Psychological Advantage in Social Business” is due out in summer 2014. Get more LinkedIn wisdom when you subscribe to JD’s blog. You are welcome to connect with JD on Google+, Twitter and of course,LinkedIn