(SEE ALSO: Part 1)
If you have a complete and fine-tuned LinkedIn profile, as described last month in Part 1 of this series, you are ready to start building your online network. You may already know that it’s not difficult to ask for a connection. There are, however, some basic guidelines to consider, and there is a strategy you can use to grow your network effectively and efficiently.
How many connections do you need? It’s difficult to say, but a greater number of connections may equate to more success, partly because of the way LinkedIn connections are structured. You have first-degree connections with people you actually know, but also second- and third-degree connections based on association. As LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman explains: “Your friends know people you don’t know. These friends of friends are your second-degree connections. And those friends of friends have friends of their own—those friends of friends of friends are your third-degree connections.”
Technically, everyone and anyone on LinkedIn is a potential connection, but there are many reasons to be strategic when growing your online network. For starters, LinkedIn imposes some restrictions and guidelines for connecting. When you send an invitation to connect with someone, LinkedIn asks you whether or not you have an existing relationship. If you don’t, you’ll be asked to provide an email address for the person before LinkedIn lets you continue. If you send requests to people you don’t really know and they respond by saying they don’t know you, LinkedIn may penalize you. And, if you send too many invitations to connect with people who don’t respond to your requests at all, or who mark your connection invites as spam, that could raise a red flag in LinkedIn’s system, which might result in your account being temporarily restricted or suspended.
Similarly, if you search through too many profile pages in a single day, LinkedIn may label that excessive activity, associate it with a robot or a spammer, and temporarily limit your page views.
Because you can be penalized for being too active on LinkedIn or too aggressive in connecting to people, it’s important to think of building your connections in phases, over a period of days and weeks, in small batches. Don’t worry—your patience and methodical approach will pay off.
I suggest building your contacts in the following layers:
1. Friends and professional associates
Start with people who know you best and are most likely to respond to your requests to connect without hesitation.
2. Past and current coworkers and bosses
Adding colleagues from work is a great way to ensure that your connection requests are accepted. It’s also helpful in gaining access to second- and third-degree connections that may come in handy later.
3. Vendors and strategic partners
Connecting with those who do business with you can also open doors to new connections, people you may not know personally who will become part of your extended network. This is beneficial to them as well as to you, so it’s very likely that they will respond to your invitations to connect.
4. Customers or clients
Connecting with customers also benefits both of you. Customers are able to receive updates in your feed that may be helpful to their businesses or their use of your products or services. Inviting customers into your network is especially important for you because it allows you to ask for a recommendation on LinkedIn. It also lets you see their updates, and provides insight into changes in their business or employment, which can impact your current and future sales relationship. And, of course, it exposes you to others in their networks—connections that could be prospective customers.
Some people you will interact with online or through social media or during conferences are high achievers and/or have lots of influence. You may never meet them in person, but for some reason your paths have crossed. Many of these influencers actively encourage people to connect with them. Take them up on that offer, as it’s a good way to quickly broaden your connections (particularly those second- and third-degree connections) and get exposure to very large networks.
6. Prospective customers
This type of connection can be a bit trickier, which is why I suggest saving it until you’ve begun building a strong, extensive network. Having a broad network of first-, second-, and third-degree connections makes it easier to find people with whom you have something in common, so that you can reach out to them as prospects and start building mutually beneficial relationships.
As you expand your list of connections and send invitations to connect, you need to follow a few best practices for success on LinkedIn. These include:
- Always customize the standard LinkedIn invitation message
LinkedIn does an amazing job of automating processes, making them simple and frictionless. One shortcut it offers is an automated message that shows up when you choose to send someone an invitation to connect—”I would like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” Instead of using this obviously boilerplate message, craft your own, explaining how you know each person you invite and/or why the connection is important.
- Include a call to action in your message
The basic goal of a LinkedIn invitation is to connect with a person, of course. But don’t stop there. Provide an incentive for that person to take action. For example, suggest joining a group that you belong to that may be of interest, or provide a link to an article you found on LinkedIn that might be helpful or interesting.
When you first meet someone, particularly if it’s at an industry tradeshow, networking event, or business meeting, send an invitation to connect on LinkedIn as soon as possible. Your invite is more likely to be accepted when the person you’re inviting still remembers you.
While LinkedIn works to minimize low-quality connections and keep what might be considered spam at a minimum, it also provides tools for opening doors to new prospects and meeting people completely outside your network.
Its free Introduction feature gives you a way to grow your network using people you already know. As long as your intended connection is either a second- or third-degree connection, you can be introduced by one of your first-degree connections.
If you want to connect with a person completely outside your network or you don’t have a connection who can make an introduction, you can use LinkedIn InMail. It lets you send a private message directly to the person even though you don’t have access to that person’s complete profile. As a basic member with a free account, you can purchase a certain number of InMails. If you have a Pro or upgraded account, you receive a certain number.
When you have no common connection with a person, it is especially important to create a message that will elicit a response. The best approach for InMail messages is to say quickly and clearly why you are getting in touch and why it will be beneficial to connect with you or respond to your message.
LinkedIn opportunities that you need to pay for include ads, sponsorships, prospecting tools, and upgraded memberships. They often need to go hand in hand with organic (free) opportunities for a salesperson to be most effective, and I view them as equally important for the social selling process.
Options with fees typically provide a more direct route for lead generation through social media channels and help create brand awareness. Having your company visible in LinkedIn through ads, for example, can make it easier for you to connect and engage with a prospect since the prospect already has a sense of the company. This is especially true if your company isn’t a well-known brand.
Here are the paid opportunities that may be helpful to you when prospecting within LinkedIn:
Like Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn lets you buy ads that are displayed on personal profile pages. Placing LinkedIn ads provides a great way to target your prospects by industry, company size, geographic location, position type, and more. Having your ad shown to people meeting those criteria is very affordable—you can spend less than $100 for an effective ad on LinkedIn, compared to many thousands of dollars for a similar ad on other websites. (Of course, larger advertising opportunities are available if you have a really big budget.)
Because it is easy to target specific subsets of LinkedIn members, I typically use ads on LinkedIn to promote webinars and special events, and to promote offers for white papers and other content used for lead generation. Ads can generate direct leads and help raise the visibility of your brand to support your non-paid efforts. In other words, someone may be more willing to connect with you after seeing an ad for your company and recognizing the name.
As an individual user, you can upgrade to a premium account, which gives you access to more features and functionality. Depending on which account upgrade you choose, you can get more search results, use additional InMail messages and introductions, see who has viewed your profile, and view the complete profiles of others. You can also gain access to tools such as Profile Organizer, which lets you store and organize important member profiles, and is very helpful when maintaining lists of prospects and customers.
Premium accounts are also nice because you can pay monthly fees and cancel or downgrade at any time. Suppose you are getting ready for a trade show or special event; you’ll want to have greater access to prospective customers and to research and follow up on attendees afterward. You can upgrade your personal account for the months surrounding the event and then downgrade to a free or less expensive premium account later.
Saved Alerts, another benefit of having a premium account, gives you a smart way to track prospects new to LinkedIn who match your target criteria.
This tool was designed specifically with social selling in mind; it’s the premium of the premium accounts. Sales Navigator gives you greater access to and insight into people and companies you are trying to sell to or connect with. Features include sending you sales alerts, building your pipeline, and managing your leads by creating and saving lists of your prospects.
Once you have Sales Navigator, you can connect directly in Salesforce (the CRM tool) and use TeamLink, a function that lets you see who your coworkers are connected to (and vice versa) so that you can find common connections. Sales Navigator is more expensive than other premium accounts, but you get a great deal of access to prospects in return.
Three for Free
Again, paid opportunities often support the organic opportunities, but you can achieve success on LinkedIn with minimal or no expenditure. Growing your network with connections and asking for recommendations is at the root of organic activity, but here are some other free ways you can take advantage of LinkedIn.
LinkedIn lets you interact with people outside of your profile page in what are referred to as groups. Similar to forums and mini-communities, LinkedIn groups are based on a shared interest, event, or product.
You can join as many as 50 groups on LinkedIn at any given time, and interact as often as you like. You can also start your own group, but I don’t recommend this unless you’re familiar with existing groups and what’s expected from them and you have plenty of time to manage your group.
Personally, I favor joining and actively participating in established groups with many or very engaged members in a target audience. This calls for getting to know about a group before you join. Information about each group is accessible from the public view of its main page via Group Statistics in a box toward the bottom. As shown in Figure 11–3, it lets you see such facts as how many participants a group has, how active the group is (the number of recent discussions), where most of the group’s members are located, and what seniority most members have.
Staying active in multiple groups is a tactic top sales professionals use to find and engage with leads. Examples of “contributions” you can make include:
- Posting your own content to the group.
- Sharing links to other people’s comments
- Asking a question or starting a conversation by asking for feedback on a news item.
- Posting a poll to elicit easy participation and feedback from group members.
An extra benefit of participating in groups is that you get another legitimate reason to extend invitations to connect—a shared membership in one or more LinkedIn groups.
- Follow LinkedIn Today’s influencers
LinkedIn has expanded the number and types of news items and articles that are shared and promoted within the site. The company’s social news page—LinkedIn Today —consists of “channels” of content segmented by topic and includes articles by top “influencers,” or contributors, who are experts in certain subjects. You can determine which channels are most important to you and have the most recent articles show up in the updates section of your profile page. You can also follow any of the top influencers to stay informed on the latest trends. Commenting on and sharing influencer articles is a simple way to keep up with industry news and provide value to your connections.
Even if you cannot connect with certain prospects or you’re having a difficult time identifying contacts within a company on your prospect list, you can follow the company’s LinkedIn page. This simple action helps you keep in touch with what’s happening within the company, lets you learn more about its needs and how you may be able to assist, and could even give you a reason to contact someone there outside of LinkedIn if you see an update that could be used as a conversation starter.
Are you worried that you can’t use all the various ways to remain visible in LinkedIn, reach prospective customers, and expand your network of connections? Don’t stress about it. Pick one or two of the easiest or least time-consuming activities and start there. But remember, as with networking offline, the more time and effort you put into smart, strategic networking on LinkedIn, the more of a return you are likely to see—especially with B2B prospecting.
Shannon Belew is a digital marketing advocate and the author of Starting an Online Business for Dummies, All-in-One. She currently manages online marketing and lead generation for a global IP telephony company and blogs at onlinemarketingtogo.com. This article is derived from her new book, The Art of Social Selling: Finding and Engaging Customers on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Other Social Networks. © 2014 Shannon Belew. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of the American Management Association. To learn more: www.amacombooks.org.