I've been LinkedIn-crazy lately. As a CEO of a busy start-up, with all the distracting little details that pull me this way and that, it is good to remind myself that the greatest asset I bring to my company is my personal network of contacts. Managing and maintaining my contacts and network, I find, is the single most important thing I can do with my time. And most of that networking is done through email: one-to-one email marketing at its (hopefully) best.
Recently I realized that I had been neglecting my personal network, so I set out to correct that. Chances are that if you've met me, or we've done business together, or we've exchanged some correspondence, than you've recently received an invitation to join my LinkedIn network. Here are some tips and tricks I've learned in building my network. I invite you to send me your own personal tips that have worked for you to the blog below, and I'll discuss the best ones in an upcoming column.
Rule One: don't mass invite everyone in your Rolodex. LinkedIn has a neat feature that will look through your Outlook contacts and give you a list of everyone in your database that is in LinkedIn but is not yet a "number one" connection. It is a great tool to get started on, but you need to cherry-pick only those folks that you really have a connection with, otherwise you'll end up like a friend of mine:
LinkedIn gives you a reputation. Just like an email reputation, having a bad rep can hurt you with the folks at LinkedIn. An old colleague used LinkedIn to blast everyone in his Outlook folder, but a number of them had forgotten him since he hadn't been in touch in a while. After a number of "I don't know him," responses came back, his reputation dropped and he got slapped on the hand by the LinkedIn folks. Make sure that you examine your list very carefully before hitting go. You want to make sure that the ones you do reach out to add you to their network.
Rule Two: reach out to those in your network. I'm a big believer in the notion that if you want someone to help you, you should help them as well. Asking someone to join your LinkedIn network is a good excuse to catch up with the person. I'm having drinks this week with an old colleague I haven't seen in years because of a LinkedIn connection. I don't know if this contact will ever be of use from a business standpoint, but you never know. He might know somebody who knows somebody. It goes without saying that being a social animal and genuinely liking people makes this process a lot better. I like staying in touch with people and finding out what they are up to and I maintain contact with folks even if they've long ago left the business. Having a sincere interest in people and their lives makes networking a joy rather than a job.
Rule Three: personalize each networking email. Whatever you do, don't blast people with a form letter. But that doesn't mean that you have to start from scratch each time. Many times I reach out to people about something new with the company: a product, new pricing, new features. I'll have a nicely worded paragraph that gets across the point I want to make that I'll use over and over, but I start out each email fresh, reminding the person where we met if I think they might not remember, asking about their work, their kids, their vacation. Sometimes I don't have anything to promote, I just want to say hi. The only way to be top of mind is to remain top of mind. In fact, I'm always amazed when people don't stay in touch with me. One time I was approached by a potential investor in a particular vendor but because the vendor hadn't reached out to me for so long, I had assumed they were out of business. It is not exactly the best endorsement when someone calls you to ask about a company and you tell them you hadn't heard anything about them for years.
Finally, Rule Four: use the power of community. You don't have to send an email directly to someone to stay in touch. For instance, LinkedIn has a program where you can ask your network a question, or respond to a question from you network. This is a perfect opportunity to get yourself (and your company) in front of folks you normally wouldn't run into.
To sum up: reach out to your network, stay in the loop, and give back as much as you get. That's the recipe for success.