So you’re at a networking event of some kind, maybe a cocktail party after a legal conference, and you’re minding your own business, sipping on a drink and surveying the room.
Then, without warning, someone taps you on the shoulder. You turn around, and there’s a person standing there you don’t recognize, although his name tag is prominently displayed. He says nothing, but holds out his business card for you to take. He’s also holding out his other hand, palm up, to indicate he’d like your card in return. And then finally he says, “Hi. I’d like to add you to my professional network.”
Now, based on that opening, what are the chances you’re going to even take the card from his hand, let alone make the effort to build this up into a worthwhile, mutually beneficial professional relationship? I’m guessing pretty small. Yet that’s exactly how thousands of people seem to think LinkedIn ought to be used.
I’ve lost count of the number of LinkedIn connection requests I’ve received from complete strangers that don’t contain a personalized introduction or any other indication of who the person is and why I should connect with them. I need a reason to make a direct professional connection with someone, especially when that connection is going to be prominently visible throughout my online network. A person who doesn’t even say who he or she is, and why he or she wants to connect, comes across as a mere contact collector, and I treat them accordingly.
If you’ve ever sent me a LinkedIn request like this and haven’t received a response, it’s not because I’m a jerk; it’s because I think it’s rude to request a public professional connection from someone to whom you’ve never introduced yourself. And it’s worse with Facebook requests: replay the previous scenario, except the total stranger introduces himself with: “I want to be your friend.” Creepy? Yeah, I’d say so.
If you’ve already got a personal, real-world connection with someone, then I think it’s fine to send a standard-form LinkedIn or Facebook connection request, sans personal note (though I try to send a quick reply of thanks if the request is accepted) — you’re simply formalizing and cementing an existing contact. If you only know the person faintly or not at all, however, and you’d like to connect, there are better ways to do it. Modify the standard LinkedIn text like so:
- “Hi, I’m Jane Smith, a colleague of [your existing contact] Rob Johnson at XYZ LLP, who says you’re a great person to know in this industry. I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.”
- “Hi, my name is Eric Jones — like you, I’m a graduate of X Law School and I also practice commercial law, although I’m based in Oregon. I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.”
- “Hi, I’m Jennifer Rogers — I read your recent article on entrepreneurial activity in China, which is an interest of mine. I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.”
And so forth. Or if you’re reluctant to approach a total stranger with your name and interests, use a go-between: LinkedIn’s Introduction feature allows you to ask an existing contact to make the initial approach. But either way, introduce yourself to the person by indicating who you are, what you have in common, and ideally some indication of why you’d like to connect — you know, like in real life. Most people will respond to this far more positively than to having a business card wordlessly shoved in their face.
Unearned familiarity is a malignant side effect of our increasingly social world: the desire to connect with someone seems to outweigh any consideration of that person’s interests, preferences, and yes, privacy. The right to be left alone still exists, even on the internet. So does the right to control one’s increasingly public circle of business acquaintances (or more powerfully, in the case of Facebook, friends). We’re still judged by the company we keep, and we have the right to control that company in ways that reflect best upon us.
Politeness matters, especially in an age when fewer people than ever practise it. Expand your LinkedIn and Facebook networks carefully, respectfully, and with a personal touch, and you’ll find that network growing in quality even faster than in quantity.