February 24, 2016

The process of applying for a job is constantly evolving—Snapchat resumes anyone? But one age-old concept still holds true: It’s all about who you know. Even if knowing someone simply means being connected online.

Enter LinkedIn—the career networking hub for 400 million people over 200 countries. Much of LinkedIn's popularity comes from their one-click networking. With 15 minutes and a pair of fit fingers, users can click their way to huge numbers of professional contacts. But there’s a major difference between being connected and actually connecting on LinkedIn.

While LinkedIn can help you numerically expand your network, it’s up to you to make those connections count. An empty connection is meaningless to your search. With a little bit of effort though, you can leverage LinkedIn to have a real impact on your professional relationships. Just follow a few guidelines:

THE DON’TS

Don’t send the automated invite message

LinkedIn provides you with ready-made invites that read, “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” You can easily press send without changing the copy, but don’t do that. Would you send, “I’d like to add you to my dating pool,” to the woman you met last Friday? No. It’s creepily generic, doesn’t explain your personal connection, and makes it clear that you aren’t looking to connect on a meaningful level. Instead, personalize the message with a few key details (tips on that later).

Don’t connect without doing homework

When applying for a job, you usually research the company, yes? Follow the same practices for connecting with potential employers, coworkers, and professional peers on LinkedIn. Lucky for you, most of the important info is available in their profile. You can see their academic and professional background as well as where they volunteer. Use this info to find common ground with which you can start the conversation.

Don’t ask for a reference unless you deserve one

References are tricky. By nature, they imply that there is a substantial connection between two people. Enough so, that one of you is willing to vouch for the other. Don’t take this lightly and If you only worked with someone for 3 months, you met at a cocktail party, or it's a work spouse that really has no idea what you do all day, then don’t do the LinkedIn ask. And likewise, don’t give one to these people either.

THE DO’S

Do have an intention in mind

Perhaps this person works at your dream company, or they’re a leader in your field, or you simply find them inspiring. Having intention is important. It gives you the reason behind your connection and allows you to then personalize the message in a meaningful way.

Do personalize your invite message

Imagine you are at a party and about to introduce yourself to someone new. How would you start that conversation? Probably not with, “I’d like to add you to my friend zone.” You might pay them a compliment, remark on something you two have in common, or explain who you are and why that matters. Either way, you would make it personal. Do the same with your LinkedIn message:

Dear Sunflower,

I’m Matterhorn, a fellow windsurf instructor in New York. There’s not many of us so I’m stoked to connect with you on this digital beach, brah.

Matterhorn

One step further would be to list a goal for this connection as in, “I want to connect with Mrs. Norton online so that I can introduce myself to her at the next Bay Area AI leader's meetup.” With that goal in mind, your message might be:

Dear Monicalia,

I admire your work on the RobotsRHumanz blog! I’m also passionate about AI. I look forward to meeting you in person at the Bay Area AI leader's meetup on Friday.

Saradox

Do have a plan for important contacts

LinkedIn’s power lies in its effortless connections. With just the click of a button, you have the opportunity to message the most influential people in your profession. Don’t waste these special contacts. Have a strategy for turning the digital connection into a real relationship. For instance, say you’ve connected with someone who works at your dream company. After the initial add, you might want to extend an invitation to meet IRL. Be specific and be direct.

Dear Suzanne,

Thanks for connecting! I’m a fan of SuperMegaCompany’s marketing, especially the Big Awesome campaign. Could I buy you coffee next Thursday to learn more about your take on digital marketing?

Chelsea

Do reach out at the right time

It’s up to you to be in the right place at the right time. Don’t just connect out of the blue and then immediately request a giant favor. If you think you’ll be needing a future deliverable from someone, then connect and interact with them as soon and as appropriately often as possible. Say you want to later invite a local CEO to your company conference. If the conference is in May, a good time to connect might be in March, with a follow-up in April. Reaching out earlier builds familiarity with them by liking their posts and commenting on updates. Then when you reach out again about something specific (and possibly bigger), it has more context.

Dear Lori,

Another great post on Fancy Cats! You really know your audience. Our conference BOOM Audience is next May. I think you’d enjoy the sessions on niche marketing, so I’ve included a copy of the agenda.

Pearl

Use these guidelines and let us know how it goes on Twitter: @joinrelate. And check me out on LinkedIn. Who knows, maybe we have something in common.

Read more Tough talk conversations—The “I’m leaving my job” email that won’t burn bridges or make eyes roll and Writing condolences for a coworker.

Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.