How to Build a Meaningful LinkedIn Network

When you build a house, you start with a set of blueprints. Likewise, when you start to grow your LinkedIn network, you should keep in mind some of the keys to having and growing your own professional network. These guiding principles help decide who to invite to your network, who to search for and introduce yourself to, and how much time to spend on LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is different from other social media sites because it focuses on business networking in a professional manner rather than encouraging users to post pictures of their latest beach party or tweet their latest status update. The best use of LinkedIn involves maintaining a professional network of connections, not sending someone a Super Hug.

That said, you'll find variety in the types of networks that people maintain on LinkedIn, and much of that has to do with each person's definition of a meaningful network:

  • Quality versus quantity: Some people use LinkedIn with the goal of gaining the highest number of connections possible, thereby emphasizing quantity over the quality of their LinkedIn connections. Those people are typically referred to as LinkedIn open networkers (LIONs). At the other end of the spectrum are people who use LinkedIn only to keep their closest, most tightly knit connections together without striving to enlarge their network.

    Most people fall somewhere in between these two aims, and the question of whether you're after quality or quantity is something to keep in mind every time you look to invite someone to join your network. LinkedIn strongly recommends connecting only with people you know. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you figure out your purpose. Are you looking to:

    • Manage a network of only people you personally know?

    • Manage a network of people you know or who might help you find new opportunities in a specific industry?

    • Promote your business or expand your professional opportunities?

    • Maximize your chances of being able to reach someone with a new opportunity or job offering, regardless of personal interaction?

  • Depth versus breadth: Some people want to focus on building a network of only the most relevant connections — people from their current job or industry who could play a role in one's professional development. Other people like to include a wide diversity of connections that include anyone they have ever professionally interacted with in hopes that anyone who knows them at all can potentially lead to future opportunities.

    Most people fall somewhere in between these two poles but lean toward including more people in their network. Here are some questions to keep in mind regarding this question. Do you want to:

    • Build or maintain a specific in-depth network of thought leaders regarding one topic, job, or industry?

    • Build a broad network of connections that can help you with different aspects of your career or professional life?

    • Add only people to your network who may offer an immediate benefit to some aspect of your professional life?

    • Add a professional contact now and figure out later how that person might fit with your long-term goals?

  • Strong versus weak link: This refers to the strength of your connection with someone. Beyond the issue of quality versus quantity, you'll want to keep differing levels of quality in mind. Some people invite someone after meeting him once at a cocktail party, hoping to strengthen the link as time goes on. Others work to create strong links first and then invite those people to connect on LinkedIn afterward.

    This issue comes down to how much you want LinkedIn itself to play a role in your business network's development. Do you see your LinkedIn network as a work in progress or as a virtual room in which to gather only your closest allies? Here are some questions to keep in mind:

    • What level of interaction needs to have occurred for you to feel comfortable asking someone to connect with you on LinkedIn? A face-to-face meeting? Phone conversations only? A stream of e-mails?

    • What length of time do you need to know someone before you feel that you can connect with that person? Or, does time matter less if you have had a high-quality interaction just once?

    • Does membership in a specific group or association count as a good enough reference for you to add someone to your network? (For example, say you met someone briefly only once, but he is a school alum: Does that tie serve as a sufficient reference?)

  • Specific versus general goals: Some people like to maintain a strong network of people mainly to talk about work and job-related issues. Other people like to discuss all matters relating to their network, whether it's professional, personal, or social. Most people fall somewhere in between, and herein lies the “purpose” of your network.

    Do you want to simply catalog your entire network, regardless of industry, because LinkedIn will act as your complete contact management system and because you can use LinkedIn to reach different parts of your network at varying times? Or do you want to focus your LinkedIn network on a specific goal, using your profile to attract and retain the “right kind” of contact that furthers that goal?

    Here are some more questions to ask yourself:

    • Do you have any requirements in mind for someone before you add him to your network? That is, are you looking to invite only people with certain qualities or experience?

    • Does the way you know or met someone influence your decision to connect to that person on LinkedIn?

    • What information do you need to know about someone before you want to add him to your network?

There is no one right answer to any of these questions. You decide what you want to accomplish through your LinkedIn network, and how you want to go from there.

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