Avoid Bad e-Networking: The Unofficial Laws of Linked-In

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Months ago I was emailed by someone with some detailed technical questions about setting up her first blog. I rarely get down and dirty into blog implementations these days, but I got back to this person, a stranger, with some resources that she could refer to for more information. She got back to me a day later, asking for my interpretation of Paragraph A and B of the resources I'd sent her to. Then she asked if I would call her to go over her implementation.

Though I am a voice of BlogHer and support women online I was annoyed! This woman clearly had not read about my role at BlogHer, or researched other options of who could give her the help she required.

You might think, "What was this person thinking? She didn't even know you!" But consider this woman's position: she was a woman blogger seeking help with setting up a blog. I'm associated with a women's blogging org, and my email address was right there on our contact page. Why not just see what happens!

The automation of the networking process may make connecting with people easier, but it also makes it a lot easier for people whose needs and interests don't match yours to connect with you. Now imagine if this woman had pinged Steve Jobs for help with her blog. I get dork chills just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, being a good networker means having some uncomfortable moments when you have to deny requests. Linked-In has automated the process of putting people in the uncomfortable position of having to make these judgements. And because of this effect I believe you have to use this tool wisely.

I am what you might consider an evangelist of the social media; I see distributed media as the way of the future, and word-of-mouth as the most powerful form of marketing. I was just espousing to a group of small business folks how your Virtual Reputation means more now than it ever did. If you don't know you have one, you are in denial, and if you are not taking care of it, you'll be in trouble.

Still, I don't use Linked-In as my primary means of networking.

Don't get me wrong--I'm on Linked-In. I created a profile over two years ago, when the first few requests to be connected began to trickle in, and I update it occasionally. I see the value of tapping networks and appreciate that I can reference people's Linked-In profiles to get a good sense of their professional backgrounds. I have many contacts in Linked-In; people I have approved to include me in their list of connections. But I have not pursued anyone myself.

I still haven't really used the tool by searching for leads or scouring the networks of my contacts to see whom they know. Granted, I'm a slow adopter--I have yet to Twitter--nor do I have much time to troll profiles, but there is also a discomfort that I have with the tool. It encroaches on a fundamental belief I have about networking--I've always believed that a contact is only legitimate when there's been a proactive introduction and acceptance of the contact information.

Let me clarify: A "proactive" introduction is an organic introduction. A typical proactive networking situation (besides meeting someone in-person and exchanging information) would be chatting with someone who is inspired by your cause and offers to introduce you to a contact. A less-proactive, but still acceptable, form of introduction would be reaching out to your network for introductions to people that your contacts believe would be interested in connecting. Then the onus is on your network to speak up and offer contacts, or not. If they offer contacts they do so by choice.

Linked-In is permission-based--my contacts cannot get access to my other contacts without my permission. But when a contact askes me to connect them with another contact of mine, I'm sometimes uncomfortable. My reputation IS my contacts, and so is my judgement in sharing them. I believe in the democratizing effect of social media and its ability to connect people of like minds (and like needs). But within six degrees of separation are many sub-degrees of nuance, intuitive determinations of appropriateness that Linked-In cannot mechanize.

Recently a good friend pinged me through Linked-In, asking for an introduction to a fairly high-powered person in my network. While I wanted to help my friend, I did not believe it was appropriate to connect him to this person. In fact, I believe it would have caused this contact to question my judgement by bringing to him contacts that were not a fit with his business. There are times when I agree that it is appropriate to connect people and I make the introduction in a much more customized, personal way than by simply clicking on "Yes" and linking these people digitally.

I have some personal rules and limits for how I use Linked-In. I'll share and would love to hear some of yours:

1. Don't be a Connection Junkie: You knew these people Pre-Web-2.0: They had to get extensions on their Rolodexes to accommodate their thousands of business cards, a millionth of which they actually used. They back up their Palm Pilots daily to keep their contact database up to date. They have the biggest birthday parties and invite everyone from work and the neighborhood. They love to mix work and play, family and colleagues. They loved to seem well-known and well-connected. I know this type so well because I have connection junkie tendencies. I love bringing people together, and I still can't throw out the hundreds of business cards from days of yore.

The problem with Connection Junkies is that they are too willing to invite and share, and while they may connect you to some quality people from time to time, they also send over cousins of friends of friends looking for internships, neighbors selling cubic zirconia bracelets for the local basketball team, and Jehovah's Witnesses. These people also love to include you in their travelogues--even if you haven't seen them in 15 years, or send you tasteless jokes. Eventually we stop responding to email from these people--they just don't think enough before distributing your name to their Outlook Address Book.

To these people, Linked In is like a blue light special--THE PLACE online to wheel and deal. If I suspect I am being asked to approve a request by a Connection Junkie I don't respond. Sorry to offend.

2. Be a linker with limits: This next one treads on some touchy territory, but let's face it: professionally, you are who you know (and what you do, of course, but when networking your contacts are critical). If you don't give your virtual Rolodex proper care and feeding it's not worth very much. This means that you have to be clear about how you are defining your network, and whom it may include.

That means that my Nana stays in my personal address book and out of my Linked-In account. Likewise, college buddies, high-school sweethearts, even blog buddies stay out of my professional network unless they are in some relevant way associated with my work. This is not a hard and fast rule--I happen to have old high-school friends who are great professional contacts, but I'm cognizant of the fact that Linked-In isn't MySpace. Generally personal contacts are not there, which increases the professional value of my contacts. That said...

3. Be OK with saying No to introductions, and when you say yes, ask for permission from the other party. I've been asked for introductions to my literary agent, magazine editors I know, attractive female friends, and in all cases I run an appropriateness check before providing introductions, and if I'm on the fence, I ask for permission. Why? Because I don't want to be a Connection Junkie, or perceived as one. I want people to be excited about the projects and people that I bring to them, and that means not bringing to them inconvenience--opportunities that I know they will have to take the time to turn down. That's not networking that's direct marketing.

Recently I was asked by a good friend to connect his friend (a total stranger) to my literary agent. This was by no means a slam dunk for this person. I gave him a qualified yes: I would consider the introduction, seeing as it was requested by a him, but I would need to read the work first. Would my agent be excited to represent me if I simply forwarded any and all manuscripts her way? Don't think so. She's got enough unsolicited material to handle.

4. Know your place. Ewww that sounds so horrible! But I mean it. Just because someone is on Linked-In doesn't necessarily mean it's wise to contact her. I don't take for granted that all people have the properly calibrated radar for appropriateness. Perhaps they envision themselves as the next Erin Brockovich on a mission that's too important for such formalities as introductions. Men without this intuitive quality might pitch Steve Jobs if they saw him standing in the next urinal stall.

One of my worst jobs ever was in a strategic sales position, where just by virtue of being within 100 yards of an SVP meant I had to "go get 'im!" In a word: Ick.

You have to consider what the lives of your contacts are like, and that they will likely hand off your info to someone else. Salespeople know this inherently and charm the gatekeepers of the world. They work their way up the food chain, in business speak, and are patient for the appropriate introductions. A long-awaited, qualified introduction is a thousand times more profitable than a cold call to someone who doesn't know you.

None of my "rules" imply that I think Linked-In isn't useful. But I question full reliance on any tool that allows people to avoid the hard work of authentic connection. In the end, real connections seal the deal.

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause.

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