Have you ever received a request to connect on LinkedIn from someone you didn't know or couldn't remember? A few weeks ago, Josh Turner encountered this situation. The online request to connect came from a businessman on the opposite coast of the United States. It came with a short introduction that ended with "Let's go Blues!" a reference to Turner's favorite hockey team in St. Louis that he had mentioned in his profile. "It was a personal connection. ... That's building rapport."
LinkedIn is known for being the professional social network where members expect you to keep buttoned-down behavior and network online as you would at a business event. With more than 200 million registered users, the site facilitates interaction as a way to boost your stature, gain a potential customer or rub elbows with a future boss.
But unlike most other social networking sites, LinkedIn is all about business -- and you need to take special care that you act accordingly. As in any workplace, the right amount of personal information sharing could be the foot in the door, say experts. The wrong amount could slam it closed.
"Anyone in business needs a professional online presence," said Vanessa McGovern, vice president of business development for the Global Institute for Travel Entrepreneurs and a consultant to business owners on how to use LinkedIn. But they should also heed LinkedIn etiquette or risk sending the wrong messages.
One of the biggest mistakes, McGovern said, is getting too personal -- or not personal enough.
Sending a request to connect blindly equates to cold-calling and likely will lead nowhere. Instead, it should come with a personal note, an explanation of who you are, where you met, or how the connection can benefit both parties, McGovern explained.
Your profile should get a little personal, too, she said. "Talk about yourself in the first person and add a personal flair -- your goals, your passion ... make yourself seem human."
Beyond that, keep your LinkedIn posts, invitations, comments and photos professional, McGovern said.
If you had a hard day at the office or your child just won an award, you may want to share it with your personal network elsewhere -- but not on LinkedIn.
"This is not Facebook. Only share what you would share at a professional networking event," she says.
Another etiquette pitfall on LinkedIn is the hit and run -- making a connection and not following up.
At least once a week, Ari Rollnick, a principal in Kabookaboo, an integrated marketing agency in Coral Gables, Fla., gets a request to connect with someone on LinkedIn that he has never met or heard of before. The person will have no connections in common and share no information about why they want to build a rapport.
"I won't accept. That's a lost opportunity for them," Rollnick said.
He approaches it differently. When Rollnick graduated from Emory with an MBA in 2001, he had a good idea that his classmates would excel in the business world. Now, Rollnick wanted to find out just where they went and re-establish a connection.
With a few clicks, he tracked down dozens of them on LinkedIn, requested a connection, and was back on their radar. Then came the follow-up -- letting them know through emails, phone calls and posts that he was creating a two-way street for business exchange. "Rather than make that connection and disappearing, I let them know I wanted to open the door to conversation."
McGovern suggests following up all new connections with a thank-you note and an expressed interest in getting to know that person. "Striking up a conversation should be easier because you can go to their profile and find a common dominator."
Turner, the Blues hockey fan, calls himself a business-to-business marketing expert specializing in LinkedIn. He operates LinkedSelling.com and says there are a handful of ways to use the professional social network to turn yourself into a valuable top-of-mind contact rather than the guy at a networking event with crumbs on his face.
"It's about follow-up. You should be posting status updates, bits of information about projects you are working on, (that can create) ways for your contacts to see your name and content on regular basis," Turner said.
Of course, staying on the radar differs from getting in someone's face with a sales pitch -- another LinkedIn no-no. You don't want to be that person shoving a business card at someone without saying hello.
"Use LinkedIn to build rapport. Build a relationship and then move that towards business," Turner said. "On LinkedIn, too many (contacts) go straight for jugular."
Nicole Williams, a career expert with LinkedIn, agrees. She recommends at least one online conversation before asking for anything and when doing so, positioning it as a win-win.
Allyson Lipnack of Creative Business Promotions of South Florida says she made the potentially offensive mistake of putting out a sales pitch for her promotional products. Realizing the mistake, she began posting examples of trendy promotional products she had supplied to targeted individuals who might be planning similar events. "I'm appearing as more of a consultant to help them with their needs."
Endorsements have become an easy way to contribute to your LinkedIn contacts, but you need to heed etiquette around this as well. Go to someone's profile, click a few boxes, maybe click a few plus signs -- done. You not only give them a virtual pat on the back, you may also help them show up in search results.
Of course, it may lead to some awkwardness. "If someone chooses to endorse you, there's no pressure to reciprocate," Williams said. "People shouldn't endorse someone they haven't worked with."
After all, it's not just their reputation, it's yours that can be affected. Said Williams, "You are going to be brushed with the same feather, so be careful with whom you are associated."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at email@example.com. Read her columns and blog at http://worklifebalancingact.com/.
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