Etiquette for LinkedIn and the Professional Networking World

After a decade (and for some of us, longer) online, we know all about Netiquette, right? Don’t use all caps in your subject line (or, God forbid, the body of an email message). Don’t send attachments to people who don’t know you well. Don’t we know pretty much everything there is to know about etiquette online?

Well, maybe not. Online networking sites like LinkedIn can challenge our ideas about what constitutes white-lace-handkerchief behavior online. In fact, if we’ve learned that it’s important to be polite when using email, it’s even truer in the social networking sphere. Here are ten tips for establishing yourself as a well-mannered online networker, when using LinkedIn:

1) Create a user-friendly profile. Your LinkedIn profile is your virtual business card. Make sure that it represents you the way you want to be viewed by strangers – make that ‘people you haven’t been introduced to, yet.’ A sketchy LinkedIn profile signals that your busy day doesn’t allow you to fill in trivial details like what you’re doing now, what you’ve done in the past, or any other useful information. Such an incomplete profile won’t serve you as you network on LinkedIn, but it’s impolite as well: its message is “I’m going to use this database to find people, but I won’t bother to include enough information about myself to indicate how I might assist anyone else.” Take a few moments to fill in the gaps.

2) Invite true friends – or at least, true acquaintances – to connect. Spam is spam, and you must have a minimal level of contact with a person before inviting him or her to connect with you on LinkedIn. A contact – a less-intrusive overture than an invitation to connect – is a good way to approach people with whom you have no relationship. LinkedIn users vary in their views on how well you must know someone before connecting to him or her, but it’s inappropriate to send connection invitations to people who have never met you, heard of you, or had any inkling of your existence (unless they have indicated a desire to be approached by strangers). Think about it: if you found a person’s phone number on a scrap of paper, you wouldn’t feel that you had permission to phone him. Your possession of an email address doesn’t give you license to contact an unacquainted LinkedIn user and suggest a connection – and it’s this kind of overzealous outreach that gets users in trouble with LinkedIn, as well.

3) When you make a request, be clear about your intentions. You’ll find your LinkedIn contacts generally happy to forward your requests if you approach them politely and are clear about your goals. In the physical world, if you asked a friend to introduce you to his friend because of a mutual interest in sailing, and then actually hit the friend-of-a-friend up for a loan, you’d be viewed as a sneak. It’s no different online. If you’re job-hunting, say so. If you’re looking for investors, ditto. A wolf in sheep’s clothing soon finds his messages sitting, unforwarded, while his LinkedIn contacts wonder whether he can be trusted.

4) Reciprocity is a wonderful thing, and gratitude is key. When possible, it’s great to include in your LinkedIn outreach messages some suggestion that you’re aware of your obligations as a requester. That could mean an offer to make a useful introduction for the person who’s forwarding yours; or an offer to help in some other way; or just a heartfelt thank-you for the introduction you seek. It’s disconcerting for your first-degree forwarder to receive a slew of requests from you in one day (and this is common when one of your first-degree contacts is more-highly-connected than others) with no acknowledgement at all of the favor you’re asking. LinkedIn is no different from the ‘real’ world, in that sense: asking for an introduction is a favor, and it’s nice to show gratitude for that.

5) Pass along requests promptly, or say why you won’t. Membership in LinkedIn is a kind of agreement with the community that you intend to participate as an active node in a large and vibrant network. If people send you requests and they sit there, unforwarded and unresponded-to, for weeks, you’re not only the weak link in the system. You’re impeding someone else’s business efforts, and giving no reason for your bottleneck behavior. If you can’t forward on a request or move a communique forward, say so – and say why. LinkedIn provides a handy list of reasons for declining a request, plus an “other” option – use ’em.

6) Avoid the boilerplate text, if you can. Of course you can. Unless you’re terribly afraid to strike out on your own with creative verbiage, please make an effort to put your own stamp on the standard invitation language that LinkedIn supplies. For instance, you could mention something impressive that you’ve heard about the person you’re contacting, or bring an old friend up quickly up to date on your doings. Using the boilerplate text shows a certain want of effort – so, even if you stick with the standard language, why not add “sorry to use the boilerplate text, but I’m not much of a wordsmith”?

7) Don’t abuse your network. Once you have cultivated a network, it’s tempting to reach out to the gang anytime you have news or a need for assistance. And LinkedIn’s functionality allows you to broadcast a note to your posse of contacts, by way of a Profile Update blast. Use these sparingly, not as a substitute for the Daily All About Me Newsletter. If you do, you may find yourself being un-connected from people who can’t manage the high volume of what’s-new-in-your-life mailings.

8) Don’t invent history to acquire colleagues. LinkedIn allows you to find former workmates at any company that has employed you, without being connected to them otherwise. Finding a colleague match only requires that you and another person worked at the same organization during the same time period. So, as tempting as it may be to make connection with people who worked in various appealing companies over the years, if you invent a work history in order to do that, you’re going to Hell. Perhaps that is overstated, but if you falsify your employment history on LinkedIn in order to create colleague-links with people you haven’t actually worked with, it’s an abuse of the LinkedIn system and the trust of the LinkedIn community.

9) Play by the rules. There are a number of ways to misuse LinkedIn in such a way as to convey the message, “I don’t care about the long-term health of this network or the company that built it – this is All About Me.” Including your email address in your LinkedIn name, for instance, makes a fee-for-use service like InMail superfluous for someone who wants to reach you, which is (if nothing else) exceedingly rude, seein’ as how LinkedIn provides the basic functionality to users at no charge. Unless you want to broadcast the message, “I don’t care whether LinkedIn can optimize its revenue strategy or not – I’m gonna optimize my connect rate,” you might consider rethinking your Me First approach.

10) Value relationships over transactions. As in physical-world networking, valuing people for their intrinsic worth over the business transactions they enable is key. No less than in middle school, ‘users’ are never welcome company for long. “Ka-ching” networking – the kind of outreach that signals “Say, you could make me a buck today” is unseemly and unfortunate. LinkedIn is a fabulous tool that enables connectors and influencers to help other people and achieve their own goals, too – and it’s great when we keep those priorities in balance.

Happy networking!

Ten Ways to Use LinkedIn to Build Your Business

Editor’s Note: Liz Ryan is CEO and founder of WorldWIT, the leading global online and offline network for women in business and technology. After seeing her many insights into virtual business relationships in both her newsletter and various spots around the web, we asked her to join us as an occasional guest blogger and she graciously agreed. Welcome, Liz!

I am interested in the posts I have seen on some of the LinkedIn-related Yahoo Groups that ask how LI can help build your business. I think of LI like my cell phone or my briefcase – it’s a tool. I don’t look at LI as a specific, revenue-goals-attached money generator. I’m not sure that it was designed to be that. But I definitely think that LinkedIn can be a business-builder if you approach it that way. Here are ten tips for using LI to build your business.

1) When you have significant news in your business – for instance, a big product launch or a joint venture – use LinkedIn to notify your contacts by way of a profile update. And in your accompanying email message to the network, say “I would love to catch up with you – want to make time for a phone call?” It’s that keeping-up process that sparks conversations about opportunities both for you and your contacts. It’s in these conversations (which could be done by email, although probably not as well) that ideas will arise about prospective clients, partnerships, and other revenue-generating projects.

2) Use LinkedIn to understand the relationships between people you know and people you want to know. For me, this is the heart of LinkedIn’s value – the ability to see at a glance how people you don’t know, but would like to, are connected to people who are closer to you. So when you find Mr. Lofty Dude in the LI network and realize that he used to work with your former admin assistant – a data point you almost certainly wouldn’t have acquired on your own – you can reach out to the admin and get, not only an introduction, but some intelligence about Mr. Dude’s current dealings, needs, and hot buttons.

3) Connect, by all means, with your former colleagues from every company that has ever employed you. There is something about old-workmate ties (unless you, er, aren’t the sort that former teammates think of fondly) that can’t be duplicated in most relationships of shorter duration. Seek out these old workmates, tell them what you’re up to and who you’re most interested in meeting, and offer to help them out as well. One good lead would be worth the price of LI membership – oh wait, it’s free – or anyway worth the price of your time doing LI searching and connecting.

4) Connect beyond the obvious. Let’s say that you would dearly like to work with General Motors, but you can’t find anyone at GM who seems especially suitable for contact as you search the LinkedIn database. No problem. Find a current GM vendor or customer in the functional area you’re interested in, and reach out to him or her. Is there something of value that you could offer in exchange for the introduction you want? In an ideal world, your sterling qualities and dazzling personality should convince this new acquaintance that introducing her client to you is something of value all by itself. But don’t bank on that. Offer to extend an invitation of your own, or design his or her new database, or something.

5) Use the LI database to understand more about your prospects. This is the beauty of LI – what other source will tell you where many or all of the senior execs of your prospect organizations used to work (given that only half a dozen of them have profiles on the company’s website)? Let’s say that you want to do some work for ABC Company. And lo and behold, half the ABC execs worked for PayPal back in the day and the other half worked for FedEx. Great intelligence! You see that they have a strong Notre Dame alum thing going on, and some connection to Stanford as well. Now you can use your FedEx and PayPal alum contacts, your Notre Dame folks and your Stanford fellows to help you get ‘over the wall.’

6) What’s in it for them? You wouldn’t email a complete stranger, even if you obtained his business card (say, by stealing the win-a-free-lunch goldfish bowl of business cards at P.F. Chang’s) to say “Hey, why not buy some stuff from me?” So please don’t reach out to new LI contacts by saying “Maybe you could help me make a new-business contact.” I wouldn’t recommend that. Instead, read this intended contact’s profile. Let’s say you are reaching out to me, who runs an online community. Two seconds of reading my profile would give you some ideas of things that might interest me. I guarantee that a typical working person could offer me something I’d be interested in. So, when you make your LI outreach, mention that thing that you could offer! Write “I would love to connect by phone, both because I’m interested in your relationship with [my most-desirable prospect company] and because I have great friends in the social networking community whom you should know.” Bingo.

7) Your contacts may be even more valuable to others than they are to you. Many people in the business community, especially avid networkers, have numerous connections that don’t do any [short-term, revenue-generating] good for them personally but that could be invaluable to their new networking contacts. Think about these valuable contacts as you reach out to people whom you hope might help you. For instance, I know lots of headhunters who have great media contacts – contacts I would drool over – journalists who regularly call them up for insights on the job market. Unfortunately, apart from occasionally mentioning in her stories that Joe Recruiter says that the job market is looking up, the journalist can’t do much for Joe – she isn’t going to write a profile on him any time soon, for instance. But she might write a profile on someone that Joe has just met through LI. Of course, Joe wouldn’t throw around her name carelessly – but he might say, “You know, I can’t guarantee anything, but for your kindness today I’d be happy to introduce you to my friend, an editor at the San Jose Mercury News, who might be interested to talk with you.” Rock on.

8) When you spot a cluster of people on LI who all know one another and are all accomplished in the same arena, that’s a really special thing. It means that a group of folks who perhaps worked together, or met online, or are part of a group together, represent a kind of mother lode of shared knowledge around a particular area – say, SEO or CRM or German opera. That’s huge, because jointly, these folks may comprise the lion’s share of the current thinking on the topic. You can reach out via LinkedIn to one of them, and say, “You know, I’m trying to get up to speed on the operas of Handel. Might I sent you an email message with some of my key questions, and ask whether you wouldn’t mind sharing your thoughts with me and also forwarding my message to your friend Jack Sprat, who could undoubtedly add a valuable perspective?” With luck, in the case of an inquiry like this, you are able to repay these experts’ valuable time with a gift of some kind (perhaps tickets to the opera). But many such people would refuse any compensation at all. It makes a huge difference how you present your situation and how graciously you pose your request. So much depends on good manners, doesn’t it?

9) LinkedIn in combination with Google News Alerts makes a great business tool. Let’s say you are looking to talk to folks at Fidelity who work in one product area. Use LI to find a name (or two or three names) of people at Fidelity who seem relevant to your situation, and whom you’d like to reach. Set up a Google News Alert on Fidelity, and set one up with the target person’s name (or a few names) so that you can learn when he or she has been quoted, is speaking on a panel, etc. This kind of intelligence will tell you what’s currently on the plate of this person, the issues he or she cares about, etc. What’s more flattering than an LI outreach message that says “I was so sorry to miss your speech at the Financial Muckety-Mucks Summit, but I was fortunate enough to read your thoughts on petro-dollars on Money.com and to catch your NPR interview last week.” Dang! Be diligent, but be careful that you don’t sound like a business stalker.

10) Vendors like to reach out to former clients, and that’s good, but it can be awkward when you haven’t kept up and have no idea what the former client is now up to. But of course, if you’ve got the contact info, thanks (let’s say) to Plaxo, you’re going to use it! LinkedIn solves the problem. Presto, you can track what your former client has been doing since you last saw him – no awkwardness. On top of that, instead of an open-ended “let’s catch up” message, you can say “Wow! You’re at Fidelity! You know, I see that you’ve only been in the job a few months, so we should definitely talk. It so happens that I’ve become something of an expert on Fidelity lately……” Now, that’s power networking!