How to Network Effectively. Elaine Varelas explains LinkedIn’s elusive etiquette.

It’s difficult to know where to start when you’re trying to create networking connections. Where does it happen and who should you seek out? There are thousands of professionals on LinkedIn that could turn into potential mentors, employers, or resources… but how do you make that reality? Elaine Varelas explains the do’s and don’ts of LinkedIn to help you build beneficial relationships in the business world.

Q: Please help me! I don’t understand LinkedIn etiquette. What’s the best way to make networking requests? Should I request a connection and see if they accept, or should I send a message only? Is there a way to reach out to people who I think could help me, even if we don’t have any mutual connections?

A: LinkedIn remains the most effective business and job search technology networking and research tool that exists. There’s definitely etiquette in terms of making networking requests. The ones that are the most effective utilize a bridge, or a person who knows both you and the person you’d like to meet. LinkedIn identifies the people in your network as 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree connections. It is best to leverage your 1st degree connections to build networking bridges to your 2nd degree connections.

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The question you’re asking is, “Is there a way to reach out to people who you think could help you?” The most effective level of networking is mutually beneficial, but that’s not what you’re really addressing. What you’re addressing is the desire to connect with people who can help you and part of my answer is, “Why should they?” Evaluate what it is that you’re hoping they’ll do for you and why they would be inclined to help. If you have mutual connections, that can motivate people to help; be sure what you are asking for from both your 1st degree connection and her connections.

Base your expectations on reality. Many people receive hundreds of requests to connect on LinkedIn and hundreds of unsolicited messages with vague or generic messages. Many people are willing to help, many people are willing to network, but typically there does need to be some benefit to them. If you’re trying to generate networking meetings without either being able to offer help or at least being prepared to offer to help them, then your networking is not going to be as effective as you would like.

Engaging as a way to introduce yourself is as much about networking etiquette in general as it is about LinkedIn etiquette. Think about LinkedIn networking similarly to using a live network. You’re going to be much more effective in your networking goals when you make meaningful connections and offer something in return. Imagine there’s someone you’d like to meet, someone like Bill Gates or Richard Branson. It’s unreasonable to expect them to respond to a LinkedIn request to connect. LinkedIn etiquette is not that you will accept every request to connect or every request to meet or have conversations.

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The benefit of a platform like LinkedIn is that you can engage with industry leaders that you respect. You can follow them and see their posts in your feed. Like and comment where and when you have something valuable to contribute. Regular engagement with their posts will put you on their radar. When they like or reply to your comments, continue the dialog. Over time you can send an InMail message, explain how you respect their work, and ask them to connect. Now you have a connection that can grow into a mutually beneficial relationship.