What Does a LinkedIn Connection Really Mean?

A pile of LinkedIn buttons that take up the entire frame.

​I’ve been making a lot of LinkedIn connections lately. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, these LinkedIn acquaintances feel very different to me from Twitter “follows” or Facebook “likes.” Perhaps it’s because my LinkedIn profile reveals more about me than those other profiles do. One might say that the decision to request or accept a LinkedIn connection is based on a fuller, more detailed picture. I might even take one step further to say that a LinkedIn connection connotes a more serious level of interest or intent.

Now that I’ve started my own company, I find myself working overtime to keep ahead of the new business curve. Keeping the prospect pipeline full is a huge challenge, much harder than it looks. While I’m deeply grateful for the solid relationships I have with my current clients, I’m also a realist. I’m aware of infinite factors at play, many out of my control, that contribute to the tenuous nature of client partnerships. I feel compelled to soldier on, forging new connections that I hope will lead to additional, equally rewarding alliances. One of the most useful tools in my new business arsenal is LinkedIn.

So, what does a LinkedIn connection really mean? How much value should I place on the simple act of someone clicking on the Accept tab in response to one of my LinkedIn requests? Similarly, when someone asks me to Link In with them, what should I assume they are thinking about me? In some ways, I feel like I’m back in elementary school learning how to read social cues. Just because someone picks me for their team in gym class, does that mean they want to run around with me later on the playground? Not always. It was tough for me to decipher those complex behavioral signals back then, and in many ways, today’s business language is no easier to translate.

Curiously, there don’t seem to be very many tutorials written about this topic. A preliminary Google search reveals a short list of articles provided by LinkedIn’s own Help Center. Starting with, “Connections — Overview,” we’re given a cursory introduction to the mechanics of the connection process, offering users some basic guidelines to follow when considering connecting with others on LinkedIn. One consistent reminder involves being careful to only Link in with people you already know (a guideline that has always seemed counterintuitive to me, especially as it relates to “new” business) and the tricky caveat that users must know the other person’s email address before being allowed to request a connection. Of course, managing all of these personal preferences depends on how a user chooses to adjust her individual user settings. Some LinkedIn users are open to any and all connection requests, while others prefer more restrictions on their incoming solicitations. LinkedIn calls this category of interaction, Member Communications, and offers three levels of accessibility to its members, ranked from most to least public:

Who can send you invitations:

  1. Anyone on LinkedIn
  2. Only people who know your email address or appear in your “Imported Contacts” list
  3. Only people who appear in your “Imported Contacts” list
For the purposes of allowing my business the greatest level of exposure, I have selected option 1 above. Perhaps there will come a time when being more selective is my preference, but for now, I’m choosing to remain more accessible.

Once a LinkedIn connection is established, best practices call for a follow-up thank you note. This in-app message may be very brief, such as a simple, “Thanks for Linking in with me.” Depending on the contact, you can leave it there, or try to initiate a deeper connection, eventually stepping off of LinkedIn messaging and onto a one-to-one email exchange.When to make this move onto email can be a bit confusing, but it’s worth considering, even if it ultimately leads you nowhere. Like the aforementioned grade school social cues, it’s often hard to interpret whether or not a new LinkedIn contact will appreciate being emailed directly. Certainly, it’s essential to avoid too much messaging. My rule of thumb is one and done.I’ve found most people are amenable to at least one external email attempt. Through reaching out, I may learn that I have not found the right decision maker and if I’m lucky, my LinkedIn connection may generously refer me to the preferred company contact. Alternatively, I could hear that my contact is not presently in need of marketing services, but that she will keep me in mind for future projects. Of course, there will always be some people who will never reply. In the best-case scenario, my email inquiry evolves into an in-person meeting to talk further about potential collaborations. Of course, those face-to-face opportunities are few and far between.

I want to be careful not to place too much value on a new LinkedIn connection, but I can’t help feeling a sense of anticipation about where it might lead. There’s a delicate balance in there somewhere, and staying alert and informed to LinkedIn’s standards for communication should always be the first step. After that, regardless of whether a connection happens through social media like LinkedIn, through an introduction by a mutual friend or business acquaintance, or by meeting someone at a crowded networking event, we should acknowledge the basis for all of these hard-fought efforts: our innate human desire for connection, approval and encouragement.

When in doubt, let’s remind ourselves of the corny but constructive, “Golden LinkedIn Rule,” that is, to approach others the way you would appreciate being approached yourself. Employing reasonable social intuitions and using maximum restraint at all times will often yield the most fruitful outcomes. Whether you earn the coveted LinkedIn reply, connection or meeting you seek, you’ll always be sure you’ve stayed true to your inner new business compass.

I welcome other readers’ thoughts on what LinkedIn connections mean to their new business efforts.

Anne Richardson

​Anne Richardson is the owner and media director of Richardson Media Group, an agency specializing in media planning and buying, advertising campaign management and SEO.

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Anne outside the door of the Richardson Media Group office.
In addition to her role as owner and media director here at RMG, Anne authors the majority of our blog posts. Favorite topics include the entrepreneurial journey, media planning and buying, and forming productive agency partnerships.