I got asked this today by someone who connected with me on LinkedIn, and I believe it is a question that a lot of you have, but don’t necessarily know who to ask. As you can imagine, there is no simple answer for this question, and it will depend on why you are on LinkedIn in the first place and what your objective is. But let’s take a closer look as to why you would have lots of connections, how to deal with them, the potential that they have, and finally my simple answer to your question.
First of all, when we talk about having lots of LinkedIn connections, we need to discuss the never-ending debate of quality of contacts vs. the quantity of them. I always get asked, “Do you actually personally know all of the 12,000+ people in your network?” What do you think my answer is? “Of course not.” But, an actual physical network compared to a virtual network being built out on LinkedIn is like comparing oranges to apples. Yes, I was offended the first time I received an invitation from someone I didn’t know. And we had a few emails going back and forth as he explained to me why he contacted me and what the potential benefits were for me. And now that I brace the concept of open networking and the benefits of building out a virtual network, I can make the emotional distinction between my own close physical network, which is indicative of who I actually know and is regardless of whether or not they are on LinkedIn, and the virtual network of LinkedIn, most of whom I may have never met but I may have the chance to get to know should the proper situation arise. Remember, My LinkedIn Network = My Virtual Network, NOT My LinkedIn Network = My Physical Network.
Let’s look at it from another dimension. When you were young, did you ever have a penpal? You found an ad in a magazine or maybe got introduced through school. I have fond memories of having penpals from not only within the US, but also far away places like Argentina and Ghana. At the time was I prescreening these people? Of course not! The tools were not in place. But it was a joy to meet new people and learn about new places. Although I obviously didn’t realize it at the time, I was already creating a virtual network to satisfy my objective of curiosity and make new friends. If I had kept in touch with these penpals until today, seeing that I am in International Business, perhaps we could have helped each other out in some way. So, 1) Just because I wanted to connect (i.e. become penpals) with these people didn’t mean that I wanted to sell them something, 2) Creating a virtual network (i.e. exchanging letters with someone you’ve never met) is an acceptable cultural practice, and 3) As we grow older, there may be ways in which we never imagined where these types of contacts could become relevant in a new light for either or both parties.
How is this relevant to LinkedIn? It is extremely relevant. It is the same thing, but the difference is that not only can you see the background and recommendations of said person and decide whether or not you may or may not want to connect with this person, but also because the demographic is that of working professionals the connection may be more relevant to aiding your career or professional life in the future.
It all comes down to the concept of “Digging your well before you are thirsty.” Do you believe in this concept or not? If not, I cannot help you in suggesting what you do with your connections. But if you believe even just a little in this concept, please keep reading!
You may be happily employed today. You may not want to be bothered by recruiters. What happens if your job is suddenly eliminated? Or what about the friend or family member in need who is enlisting your help in finding them a job?
And after you find a job, what about the challenge in finding new customers, partners, and service providers? What if you are put in the role where you need to hire someone yourself?
If you move to a new city, how do you go about finding new people to meet? Or finding service providers?
And what if, someday, you come up with a great idea and decide to start your own business?
There are many situations that we just can’t predict in life. But rather than picking up the yellow pages, doesn’t it make sense to first contact those in our LinkedIn network or ask from recommendations from people that we trust in our LinkedIn network? Even if you have never met that person before, LinkedIn provides you the opportunity to mentally vet that person before contacting them through checking out their profile and recommendations.
You just never know when someone in your network will prove useful to you. I say this because I have used my LinkedIn connections for all of the above functions within the last several months without even predicting that I would have! I looked for a job, found a job, looked for potential customers and distributors, hired a service provider who was in my network, lost my job, am looking for a job again, met new people in my local Southern California, am also looking for new service providers…the beauty is that my virtual network has allowed me to do all of this a lot quicker and more effective than if it did not exist. It is, in essence, my personal Yellow Pages.
OK. Hopefully you’re a believer now. But how to manage all of these connections? I think the person that has written what many consider to be the best article on the subject, “I Am Not a Number!”, is Scott Allen, the author of “The Virtual Handshake“. Rather than googling for this article, you can find it here. Scott goes over the concepts of how to manage connections of what will become your “virtual” network. It is all common sense, but it goes to point out that just because someone is in your virtual network does not necessarily mean that they want to be contacted whenever you change a job nor necessarily want to be sold to. And there is a protocol you need to think about before contacting them.
So, getting back to the question, what do you do with these connections now that you have them? Nothing. Nada. That’s right, don’t do anything, unless you have a reason to contact them with. And if you have a reason to contact them, remember that they are actually people, as Scott Allen reminded us, so use LinkedIn search to break down your connections into the specific demographic that may be interested in what you have to tell them, and customize your message to them.
I’d also like to comment here that just because someone has a lot of connections, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are gathering connections to monetize them. A lot of LinkedIn LIONs and open networkers with lots of connections, who I would label as super connectors (like the famous Steven Burda, for instance) have no intent of using their connections for money in the immediate future. Now that could change, as you never know what the future holds, but I would argue that just because you have lots of connections doesn’t mean that you can simply monetize them. How would you monetize them? And just because you have connections, it doesn’t mean that they are lining up to buy whatever product or service that you might have, right? Of course not. And if someone does try to monetize their connections and is not careful about how they go about doing it, I am sure that LinkedIn Customer Service will hear about them very quickly and they will not be a LinkedIn user for long!
That being said, LinkedIn does send out advertisements for its paid service promoting the fact that you can sell to its 36+ million members. Let’s look at the wording of the latest advertisement I received just one week ago:
“Are you making the most of LinkedIn to drive sales for your company?
A LinkedIn premium account enables you to:
- find your ideal prospects with access to the full profiles of more than 36 million top professionals
- get more search results than your free account allows
- directly contact your prospects using InMail™
- receive priority customer service and lots more”
If this is the case, and if you become a paid member, is it now considered OK for you to monetize your connections? If it is OK to directly contact prospects (who you are not even connected to and thus don’t know!) using InMail, why can’t you also do this through connecting with them directly, where at least you can research their background and they can make a mutual decision as to whether or not they want to receive messages from you?
This is the paradox that LinkedIn faces as it tries to monetize its network, and if LinkedIn ever asked me I have loads of ideas that would allow them to retain the quality of their network while generating revenues and satisfying the diverse needs of their community (including open networkers) at the same time. Just ask me! It can be done while keeping everyone happy, and I think all of who use LinkedIn and evangelize about it would agree that a financially healthy LinkedIn is a great thing for everyone.
Let me make myself loud and clear: I AM IN NO WAY CONDONING PEOPLE WHO ARE AMASSING CONNECTIONS WITH THE SOLE PURPOSE OF SPAMMING THEM. But there are other reasons why people are connecting with others while amassing their virtual network. It really depends on their objective. And if you don’t know what to do with your connections, you need to rethink what your objective is on joining LinkedIn and figure out the answer yourself.
I welcome all questions or comments on the above. If you have a specific objective for using LinkedIn and what to know how to utilize LinkedIn or your connections, please contact me! nealschaffer at gmail dot com