The Accidental LinkedIn Celebrity

In just 2 days, a simple trick allowed me to meet nearly 1,000 real world CEO's and decision-makers on LinkedIn, then things got really crazy.

I started out the week talking to a few industry contacts about methods they'd used for networking.  Networking has become somewhat of a dirty word, denoting more of a data mining tactic akin to keeping a drawer full of business cards organized by industry.  That wasn't what I was looking for.  What I wanted was for people to come to me and I knew part of the equation already: I needed to provide value.

The other half of the equation was finding an audience and frankly, LinkedIn was a pretty obvious choice.  What really put things together was something that one of my friends said.  This friend told me that they used LinkedIn, like many others, as a database of professionals.  Need an expert?  Check LinkedIn.  Want a job candidate with actual work experience?  Checked LinkedIn.  Etc and so forth.

He said, "There's just something about that 500+ connections status on LinkedIn that adds credibility."

This was nothing new, everyone does that.  He then pointed out something that in retrospect is obvious.  He said, "There's just something about that 500+ connections status on LinkedIn that adds credibility."  ...and he was right of course.  LinkedIn suffers from a terrible signal to noise ratio (I'd find out more about that first hand in the days to follow!).  In fact, I'd been guilty of violating LinkedIn convention myself, operating a script to upload job ads to my updates in the hopes of helping out a few of my peers throughout B-School.

So I decided to try an experiment.  I would get to over 500 connections with a week, if I could, and see how many of them I could contact personally in that time.  It's worth noting that at this point I had a mere 135 connections... I'm just going to go ahead and say it, my wife even had more connections (365) than me (135).

Why I Was a LinkedIn Wallflower:

It's not that I hadn't tried to use LinkedIn, but a number of factors can cut down on your natural LinkedIn social circle.  For me it was a combination of attending undergrad at a time before LinkedIn and at a place (Drew University) where many of the students then would more likely find their jobs on or one of the other non-profit job boards.  Don't get me wrong, now, more than a decade after my graduation there are many Drew students on LinkedIn, but without a B-School, a Business Major, or even an extensive recruiting program, small liberal arts schools like Drew are losing the war in terms of market-share in getting their graduates online and competitive.  Now, to be completely fair, my MBA program at Thomas Edison State College is only a couple years old, also lacks on campus recruiting and, as of this writing, is in the process of developing its career center for MBA candidates, so it's not only small liberal arts colleges that could benefit from the lessons learned by Harvard, who press-gangs their 1st year business students into every business social network available en masse.

Let's get back to my wife for a second.  She went to a large, state school and, somewhat ironically, has worked for a couple non-profits.  She has been lucky enough to work with a lot of young, tech savvy individuals, many of whom were desperately fundraising for a variety of causes, and thus has consistently added a few LinkedIn connections at nearly every life experience.  Then she went to grad school at another, different large state school.  I got into politics early on and though I have a few politicians on my connections list (and thus know their staffers well), many of the, shall we say well-seasoned, individuals involved in things like historic preservation and open space purchasing haven't quite leapt the digital divide in the way the younger generation has.

How to Transplant a Social Network:

It was time to resort to desperate measures.  There was simply no way I was going to be able to continue to show my face on LinkedIn if I could not at least get my connections up to 366 (yeah, 1 more than my wife's profile).

The Basics:

  • A complete profile (2+ former jobs with descriptions, a real profile photo, a description, 50+ connections, and 25+ skills with endorsements).  -- According to LinkedIn an "All-Star" (shows what they know!).
  • 135 Connections
  • My Addressbook
  • A Credit Card

The Challenge:

  • 366 NEW connections in just 7 days to real life, non-fake accounts (putting me at a total of 501... and with a nice lead over my wife).
  • Bonus points for people I might actually do business with and who speak my language (literally).

Having been on the Internet previously, I sat down at the computer, gritted my teeth, and... pulled out my credit card.  Certainly there must be a way I can buy myself out of this one, right?  Maybe, but it didn't quite work out that way.  I checked out the obvious option, LinkedIn Premium at $50 a month.  There is an entire Internet full of articles about whether or not to pay for LinkedIn Premium, but I'll give you one simple argument that sums up all the rest: If you haven't maxed out your Free LinkedIn profile, if your lack of a LinkedIn Premium account is not holding you back, then buying LinkedIn Premium is not going to solve your problems.  Want to know more?  Google it.  Point is, $50 a month for LinkedIn Premium wasn't going to solve my problems.

Next up, I double-checked my door locks and headed over to the shady part of the Internet, which apparently includes tech blog The Daily Dot.  Apparently it is much more popular to purchase friends / connections for Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social networks than for LinkedIn.  Regardless, the article which was somewhat inaccurately titled "The Complete Guide to Buying Popularity Online," noted a few key facts: It's difficult to control where bought connections come from or how long they'll stick around.  It's also difficult to ensure that there are real people behind the connections.  Now, while I might happily pay membership to a professional organization for Health Care Management MBA's and Hospital Directors which includes a LinkedIn component, that's not what buying connections offers.  So for the moment, the jury is still out, if highly skeptical, regarding the purchase of LinkedIn connections. would have been more productive for me to to add complete strangers, since those are new connections I need to make anyway...

Besides, I hadn't even begun to exhaust my free options.  For one thing, I might be able to add my friends and business contacts on LinkedIn.  Let's read that one again.  Yes, I know it's a crazy idea, but I might actually be able to add people I already know in real life on this virtual social network.  To that end, I followed the instructions to sync my Gmail addressbook with my LinkedIn account, as I have previously, and was prompted to connect with everyone I've ever emailed including: coworkers, former coworkers, college friends, my freshman college roommates I haven't spoken to in 12 years, ex girlfriends, ex bosses, and people from distant lands that I've never met who somehow ended up in my addressbook.  This was an important step in order to rule out any viable connections that I might have missed.  However, it would have been more productive for me to to add complete strangers, since those are new connections I need to make anyway.  My LinkedIn profile may have gotten pretty dusty over the years, but I have kept up with the minimum, adding people I actually know on the network, so for me nothing was gained by reviewing my old addressbook once more.

Power Tip: Clear Out Your Stagnant (Non-Mutual) Contacts

Strange things can happen when you upload the same individuals to your LinkedIn addressbook multiple times.  It's mostly harmless, but can make it difficult to keep track of who you have attempted to add (and, specifically, who has rebuffed you).  I suggest clicking on "Connections," then "Add Connection" at the top of any LinkedIn page.  A grey link to the right on this page reads "Manage imported contacts."  From there, you can delete  "other contacts that are not yet connected to you on LinkedIn" before importing a bunch of fresh contacts or re-importing old ones.

Seeking 1,000 Friends for the End of the Week

Where could I find 1,000 (ok, 366) real life people who would add me on LinkedIn by the end of the week?  My LinkedIn page URL was too long to hold up on a sign at the bar or airport, so I started trawling the profiles of "LinkedIn Super-Connectors" with more than 500 connections to see how they were managing it.  I soon discovered a class of, to coin a term "LinkedIn Ultra-Connectors" with thousands and in some cases 10's of thousands of connections, the majority of which appeared to be real live human beings.  As it turned out, these Ultra-Connectors were part of an informal movement that calls itself the L.I.O.N. or "Linked In Open Networking" movement.  L.I.O.N's typically have LION somewhere on their profile or in their tag line or even name and post on public LION groups created for the purpose of posting your email address and asking for connections.  I was in.

I joined the first 5 LION groups I found (silently vowing to scuttle all reference to LION from my LinkedIn existence after this was all over... so much for that) and bravely posted my email address, ready to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous spammers.  It wasn't actually that bad on the spam front, but on the other hand, I only got a few new connections this way.  As I read through the huge stacks of email addresses posted on these LinkedIn groups, I looked at the dates and a pattern began to emerge.  Many of the largest (most-connected) accounts had been posting and reposting their email address for literally years (6 years in one case!).  I did not have that kind of time.

What I needed was a way to quickly build an addressbook of email addresses, like these, through which individuals had freely agreed to receive connection requests.  It's important to note here that LinkedIn's Terms of Service explicitly forbid the use of so-called scrapers, such as the Chrome webstore's "Email Extractor" browser plugin or "Email Extraction" and others.  The LinkedIn TOS even forbids manually copying and pasting data from the profiles of others.

There are websites off of LinkedIn which maintain downloadable addressbooks filled with Open Networkers.  One such website is Invites Welcome. To my knowledge, opting into one of these services or using it is not a violation of LinkedIn's TOS in and of itself.  Of course, that comes with a thousand caveats, the first of which is that such a website could not charge a fee, at all.  While we're at it, even if you are careful about all of that, you aren't allowed to automate connections or communications, which probably technically includes email scripting.  -- In 2011, the blog LinkedIn Makeover (whose very URL violates LinkedIn's TOS), used and gave a positive review to Invites Welcome.

Another possible source of contacts is the directories of any professional organizations you may be a part of, but again make sure these individuals are open to receiving invites.

So, I met a bunch of people via an Open Networkers group outside of LinkedIn, then added them; that's the TOS approved, 2-second version of this article.

Armed with a CSV (Comma-separated values) addressbook populated with email addresses for connection, I headed over to the LinkedIn bulk import tool, which is well hidden behind the "Add Connections" menu item within the "Any Email Button."  I'd deep link to it, but LinkedIn points out that this would be a violation of their TOS (last time I'm pointing that out, I swear).

10 seconds later, the file was uploaded and I was waiting for 1,500 responses to come pouring in.  Rather, despite my best efforts, some 380 of the addresses were to accounts that no longer existed, so I was invited to instead send an email to those individuals encouraging them to join LinkedIn.  The remaining contacts got genuine LinkedIn connections requests.  I could give a blow by blow, but suffice to say just 3 days later I have 737 connections and have absolutely surpassed my goal.  Pour in they did.*

*Yeah, you'll want to turn off your email notifications for new connections on this one, but not for messages received!

From Connection to Camaraderie

The Results:

  • 3 days
  • 700+ connections
  • Bill: $0
  • Finding out the weather in Honduras from an MNC's CFO?  Priceless.

If I wanted an impressive number on my LinkedIn profile, I could have just resorted to using my credit card, but I wanted real industry connections instead.  To that end, I've contacted about 70 of the individuals who have accepted my connections so far.  Many have written back.  We've discussed the weather, business, life, and my photography hobby.  All in all it's been an amazing experience.

I thought about automating, but decided that would defeat the purpose of connecting, so instead, while I do have a standard bio blurb that I send along, I've been taking it slow and trying to actually contact a few of my new connections each day.  It's possible to set up and email auto-responder, which even looks pretty convincing, to chat with each of your new connections (TOS alert), but I don't recommend it.  Far better to just slowly go through a few profiles each day.  Don't forget, viewing and endorsing profiles also triggers others viewing and endorsing your own.

Cleaning House

So what's next on the agenda?  Well, since you asked, I'm going to delete a slew of connections (ok, maybe not quite a slew).  I said over and over it's not a numbers game to me and it isn't.  I don't want to be just another profile in some HR recruiter's fake account that they use as a virtual rolodex, that's what blind resume uploads and unsolicited mailings are for after all.

To detect fake accounts one of the biggest things I look at is the profile photo.  Let me preface this by saying that fake LinkedIn profiles are driving down the usefulness of LinkedIn for the rest of us.  With that in mind, if I see a profile photo that is clearly a company logo or anything that's not a human being, I block the profile and report it to LinkedIn.  That's pretty clear cut in those cases.

In other cases, I see profile photos that are just too good or just don't look right.  I know CEO's who have had professional headshots taken for LinkedIn and let me tell you, you can still tell that these are regular folks.  So when I see a profile photo that looks like it came from a magazine or a stock photo, I check to see where else the photo is used online.  You can do this in Chrome Browser by right-clicking on the photo and selecting "Search Google for this image."  When it pops up as a Chechnyan actress, I block and report as always.  In the rare cases where a clearly fake photo doesn't show up in Google, another service called TinEye does essentially the same process.

...keep an impressive but manageable network of individuals and eschew the 30,000+ virtual yellow pages I've seen other users brag about.

I encourage everyone to resist the allure of high connection numbers and review profiles in this way.  By having max, a couple thousand real individuals in your network whom you've actually spoken with in the past 20 years, you are still outperforming the majority of the so-called power-networkers out there.  For a final lesson, take a note from professional politicians: each one has a staff member whose job it is to recruit a local to introduce the politician to all of the important constituents at the party.  Unless you have the resources to do this with LinkedIn, keep an impressive but manageable network of individuals and eschew the 30,000+ virtual yellow pages I've seen other users brag about.

As for me, I'm have a virtual party tonight.  Just me and 750 of my closest friends.  It might not go too late, after all, they've got 22,682,386 friends of their own that I'd like to get to know.  Tomorrow is going to be a busy day.

Don't forget to send me a connection!

Shout-outs to Unsplash for the stock photos and Wordle for the "word cloud" image!

Popular posts from this blog

How to Keep a Secret Online

How to Turn an Email Server Rogue - HCCI-214 Session 5