Originally appear in the March 07, 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review
Social media can be a highly effective tool for diversifying and evolving one’s network. That said, it can be challenging to reach out to people you don’t know. Too many people focus on trying to network with senior people. Instead, prioritize building relationships with your peers and with people who are earlier in their careers. This network will grow in seniority with you, and can connect you with opportunities down the line. You’re also more likely to get a response by looking beyond the C-suite. Your entire message should be easy to read on a phone screen. What are the three bullets you want to convey? The pros who get the best response rates treat their messages as handwritten notes with a personal touch. They let their voice come through and also find common ground by referencing a common interest, a shared alma mater, or a mutual friend. Don’t neglect the people you already know. Your network is rooted in existing, real-life relationships, so put effort into connecting more regularly with people who have firsthand experience working with you.
I’m a big believer in the power of social media to diversify and evolve one’s network, build on the strength of weak ties, and nurture relationships over time. I’ve seen the business value of social media firsthand as the founder and CEO of three technology startups, and as a product executive at LinkedIn. My experience is backed up by research: 75% of B2B buyers and 84% of executives use social media to make purchasing decisions, according to IDC. And LinkedIn’s 2018 State of Sales report found that 89% of top salespeople consider networking platforms to be critical to closing deals.
That said, it can be challenging to reach out to people you don’t know. I’ve been on the receiving end of sales pitches for the better part of 30 years, and I know how quickly online conversations can become transactional. But, the more your interactions are modeled after genuine, in-person connections, the better. Here’s my advice for building a stronger business network with the help of social media:
Don’t obsess about seniority. Too many people focus on trying to network with senior people. Instead of reaching out only to executives, prioritize building relationships with your peers and with people who are earlier in their careers. This network will grow in seniority with you, and connect you with opportunities down the line.
You’re also more likely to get a response by looking beyond the C-suite. Our research at LinkedIn shows that response rates differ significantly by the seniority of the recipient. (LinkedIn applies machine learning to analyze aggregate data about the factors that influence message acceptance and reply rates.) People earlier in their careers respond most often to an initial message, while VPs and C-level professionals respond the least to people they don’t already know.
Be brief but personal in your first message. People don’t have the patience to read long messages that look and feel spammy, especially if it’s the first time they’re hearing from you. I almost always ignore initial messages that are more than a paragraph. So, keep it brief — what are the three bullets you want to convey? Write those three sentences. Your entire message should be easy to read on a phone screen. Our InMail analysis found that messages under 100 words perform best, and response rates decrease significantly as word count increases beyond 500 words.
Of course, the content and tone of the message matters, too. The pros who get the best response rates treat their messages as handwritten notes with a personal touch. They let their voice come through and speak like a human. They also find common ground by referencing a common interest, a shared alma mater, or a mutual friend. According to our research, referencing a mutual connection boosts the acceptance rate of these messages by 51%, second only to attending the same school at the same time (53%).
Ask for advice and take advantage of transitions. There’s an adage in fundraising that I learned as a startup founder: “If you go seeking advice, you get money; if you seek money, you get advice.” Do the former. You wouldn’t meet someone for coffee and start pitching them something, so don’t do it online.
Often the best way to ask for advice is to be direct. It can be as simple as saying, “I’m kicking around some ideas and would love to bounce something off you. Can I buy you coffee?” or “I’m struggling with this problem and would really appreciate your insight. Do you have 15 minutes to talk?”
And if you’re in a transitional period — starting at a new company, switching industries, or moving to a new city — recognize the opportunity to reach out to people, ask for their advice, and absorb their wisdom.
Pay it forward. The best way to build a relationship is to help someone with joy and with no expectation of anything in return. It feels good, it trains your own sense of generosity, and it informs you of what the other person values. It also sets the stage for you to ask them something in the future. You don’t have to offer to help in every circumstance, but make yourself available as a resource to people, particularly to people who are just starting out in their careers. I make myself approachable by posting my email and phone number online and responding quickly to legitimate information requests from people who are early in their careers if I feel I can help.
As you build your online network, don’t neglect the people you already know. Your network is rooted in existing, real-life relationships, so put effort into connecting more regularly with the colleagues, clients, partners, and mentors who have firsthand experience working with you day-to-day and week-to-week.
Social media opens up incredible possibilities for strengthening your professional network. Make sure you approach online networking as an extension of how you interact with others in the real world: connect with people personally by finding common ground, then build trust and long-term relationships, rather than one-time transactions.