The prospect of online networking through a site like LinkedIn can seem as arduous as an annual checkup. You know that it could be good for you, especially in the long run. Yet its benefits seem illusory enough (after all, how unhealthy is your career?) that the sheer act of going to the site and dealing with e-networking seems hardly worth the effort of typing in the URL.
Higher education professionals are particularly poised for taking advantage of the networking capabilities of a site like LinkedIn. However, as with any new media tool, LinkedIn involves a certain amount of patience, creativity, and restraint in order to fully leverage what the site can offer.
A simple Google search on LinkedIn etiquette produces a cacophony of often contradictory information on best practices for using the site for career development purposes. Some websites suggest that you should only connect with people you directly know and should utilize the multiple functionality of the site (i.e. groups and discussions) with caution based on your current contact list and field of expertise. Other sites advise you to become as active as you can in joining groups, connecting with people, participating in discussions, and posting questions to LinkedIn Answers.
After looking through dozens of sites, I have attempted to aggregate some of this LinkedIn advice into a more tailored list for higher education professionals looking to expand their network of contacts or to find ways to bring resolution to that frustrating job search.
Market Yourself without TMI
A virtual first impression, your LinkedIn profile is an easy and powerful way to present yourself and your professional experience. Unlike your resume, your profile should be an engaging, yet informative snapshot of your career path and your current position.
Yet the five biggest pet peeves about LinkedIn I found during my research boil down to self-marketing mistakes. These LinkedIn Don’ts include:
- People who don’t include photos or include company logos in place of a photo.
- People who include too much or inconsistent information in their profiles.
- People who use their status update as a mini-Twitter or have Twitter fully hooked up to their LinkedIn account.
- People who have recommendations but have not recommended anyone else.
- People who connect with groups but clearly don’t belong in them.
LinkedIn is by design a social networking tool, so your profile should reflect this more personable point of view. Inasmuch as you want to avoid too much jargon and over-generalized language, you should not hold back from promoting your accomplishments. However, don’t treat the site as casually as you would Twitter or Facebook or you risk turning away potentially lucrative professional connections.
Connect with Alumni Groups
The most important thing I have learned from LinkedIn is the strength of alumni-group networking. Almost every school and alumni association has its own group on LinkedIn with an active group of members.
People love helping out fellow alumni, particularly students. I’m not sure if it’s the nostalgia factor or the idea of shared experience. Yet, I have encountered my biggest networking successes, if there are such things, from connecting with people via alumni networks who share my interests or work in a similar area. These are people who have set themselves up to connect with you, in a sense, by joining a particular alumni group.
The Art of Connecting with People You Want to Know You
Yet, with alumni or any other people with whom you want to connect, taking a step back to figure out your approach is critical. Of course, the catch is to identify people who are likely to accept your connections. The old LinkedIn mantra of only connecting with people you know well became obsolete the second they introduced the concept of “Groups,” which greatly extend your networking potential via identified common interests.
To me, the art of LinkedIn networking lies in the ability to identify mutually beneficial connections, i.e., people with whom you want to connect who may find value in knowing you, and what I call “mentor” connections, i.e., people with seniority in your industry or with experience in a sector in which you’d like to work. In my experience, people who fall into these two categories not only are likely to connect with you, but also are willing to extend the conversation outside of LinkedIn into meaningful discussions and professional advice.
In terms of how to make your approach, almost every site I uncovered throughout my research indicated that most people prefer the pre-programmed “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” It’s to the point and allows people to focus on your profile to determine that you are indeed a valuable new connection rather than a crazy person.
To Discuss or Not to Discuss
Other connection possibilities exist in the different options for conversation available through the streams of discussion within LinkedIn Groups and other internal networking tools, such as asking questions in the Answers section.
Admittedly, I have not made much use of these options, though there always seem to be lively issue-based discussions occurring on the various groups of which I am a member. Indeed, I unchecked the box to received regular email updates of these discussions because my inbox was becoming inundated.
In the end, the beauty of LinkedIn as it has evolved over time is the degree to which it can now be customized. You can choose to be an active group participant, to utilize it as a career networking tool, or indeed to leave it alone like a posted resume on a jobs website.
Whether you’re a grad student looking to explain your years of teaching experience in a cogent way or a professional trying to explain a side project or surprising career change, LinkedIn can be a highly effective way to market yourself professionally and extend your network of connections to include other people across the world who share your interests and goals.
Jessica Quillin owns Quillin Consulting, LLC,  a consultancy in Washington focused on content development, research, and strategy for the education and arts sectors. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cambridge.