When I connect...
On LinkedIn, many people proudly proclaim themselves to be LIONs.
The acronym stands for LinkedIn Open Networker and essentially means the person will accept a connection request from anyone who sends them one. People who proudly claim they are LIONs will often also boast of having tens of thousands of connections on LinkedIn... which actually isn't very difficult to achieve if you invite other LIONs to connect with you at every opportunity and accept every connection request you receive.
I am definitely not a LION.
Quite the opposite, actually: I go to great lengths to carefully curate my network.
It's not because I don't understand the value of a large network, it's because I value quality over quantity... and because LinkedIn as a platform simply wouldn't be at all useful for me if my network consisted of 20,000 people I didn't actually know.
When I get a connection request, here are the questions I ask myself to decide whether or not it's appropriate for me to choose "Accept".
1. Have we met?
If the request comes from someone I know, it's an easy decision for me: I immediately click, "Accept".
2. Do I know you by reputation?
Sometimes I get connection requests from people I haven't ever met, but whom I know because of who they are or what they have done. Maybe they're connected to an existing contact who's spoken highly of them, perhaps they share a lot of great content that makes its way into my feed, or possibly they've done a lot of great things for their organizations and I've read about them in the trade publications and newsletters I consume regularly. It doesn't matter how I know your name, it matters that I'm aware of your professional brand.
When that happens, I'll reply to a connection request with an invitation for coffee; it used to be an invitation to physically meet at a mutually convenient Starbucks, but COVID has required me to begin extending invitations for VirtuaLattes instead. Still, a connection is a connection, and the coffee invitation is intended as an opportunity to get to know one another. If they accept, we find a time to meet... and once that happens, then we've met, and I hit "Accept".
And if they want to connect with me on LinkedIn but don't want to find time to actually connect with me? That tells me all I need to know about how much they value having an authentic connection. (Read: "Decline".)
3. Do you work for a company I admire?
When I get connection requests from people who work for companies I respect and admire, they'll also get an invitation for a more personal coffee connection. The reason for that is simple: great organizations tend to hire great people... and I like knowing great people. Granted, great organizations can hire not-so-great people too, so admittedly this approach isn't foolproof... but it hasn't disappointed me yet.
4. Are you a recruiter in my field?
When I get a connection request from someone working with an executive search firm or with "recruiter" as their title, I click on their profile to see if it says they recruit for senior marketers or C-suite executives. If so, I click "Accept"; yes, I want to have personal relationships with everyone in my network... but I also want to be considered for interesting employment opportunities, and feel this is a reasonable exception to my "keep it personal" rule on a professional social network. Plus, if somebody asks me how I know Brad the recruiter, it's pretty easy to explain.
5. Did you include a note explaining why you wanted to connect with me?
There's a popular LinkedIn sales influencer who regularly states people should NOT waste time with personal notes when sending connection requests. His argument is that personal notes take longer to write but don't significantly influence people's willingness to "Accept" (based on his research)... so you can forgo the note and spend that time sending more connection requests.
If you're prospecting, that makes sense. But it's also a really great reason for me to decline you: if you can't take the time to articulate why you're interested in connecting, I have to assume that you're following the advice of those sales influencers (especially if you have "business development" in your title) and that when I accept, I'll immediately be hit with a sales pitch. No, thanks... DECLINE.
If you do send me a note, the reason you want to connect determines whether you get a coffee invitation or a decline.
Sometimes, if I get the sense they've sent me a connection request simply because they liked something I wrote, I invite them to "follow" me on LinkedIn or subscribe to this blog; that allows them to keep getting the content I produce and me to maintain a more personal network. Win-win!
And if the answer to the first five questions is "No"...
... I respectfully decline the invitation.
It's not because I don't care, it's because I care too much. When someone asks me about a connection, I want to be able to give a thoughtful response.
"Do I know Chris? Absolutely! We worked together a few years back... she's really bright and you won't find someone who works harder!"
"Do I know Sam? Yes... we had coffee a few years back when he was in transition. I don't know him well, but I thought he was a great guy who asked great questions, and since I first met him, he's made some really insightful comments on some of the articles I've shared."
This isn't always feasible: sometimes you hit it off with someone at a conference and immediately connect on LinkedIn... then several years pass and you've forgotten the person even as the connection remains.
But if you were to hit "Accept" every time you got a random request, a personal connection with even a majority of your network becomes impossible. I only have 2,300 connections on LinkedIn... but I could probably tell you something personal about 80% of them. And that would be next to impossible if I had 10,000+ connections.
Of course, I'd LOVE it if LinkedIn would allow me to sort my connections into a few groups: "Friends", "Former colleagues", "Recruiters", "Vendors", "People I met once at a conference", "People I've never met", and so on. Better yet, if when accepting a request LinkedIn gave you the option to rate the strength of the connection -- i.e. a "1" for your best friend, a "5" for someone you've never met" -- and gave you the option of publishing those results within the "Connections" section, that would be useful to everyone on LinkedIn! There wouldn't be any more, "Oh, sorry, I don't know how I know Sam" or, "I met Joe at a conference once years ago, so I don't know him well enough to introduce you"... you'd be able to see that Sam and Joe were "5" connections for me, and wouldn't bother asking me about them.
But LinkedIn isn't built like that. You can "accept" or "ignore", and that's it. And that forces all of us to make decisions about how we're going to use the platform, and what connections we should accept as a result.
The irony of all my "connection rules" is that from a social media perspective, they're self-defeating: it would actually be in my best interests to accept every connection request I received so that whenever I published an article (like this one), it would have a greater reach and a better chance of "going viral". At that level, most PR experts would consider me a "micro-influencer" and might even begin to engage me for their client's campaigns!
But I don't think that's how I want to use LinkedIn. Not the way it's built today, at least.
These are my own personal rules for LinkedIn, and for the most part, they've worked for me.
They might not work for you, and I'm not suggesting you adopt them.
But until LinkedIn gives us some greater flexibility in classifying our connections, I do recommend taking a moment to think about how you choose to use the platform, and what the true value of your LinkedIn network is today.