LinkedIn – the Personal CRM Solution?

A post comparing my use of LinkedIn and Twitter has been lurking in my draft folder for more than a month but I just couldn’t bring myself to publish. I recently talked with a group of postdocs at UW Madison. As we were talking about networking, particularly how to build a network, I realized that the post should be about how LinkedIn (LI) can (and should) supplement real life activities. Even if you ignore the “social” components, LI is a great organizational tool to manage your relationships – maybe it is the personal Customer (Contact!) Relationship Manager (CRM) solution.

Finding New and Old Connections – A good place to find existing or make new connections is your existing contacts. Increasing the number of people you are connected to will help populate the People You May Know section on your home page with people you recognize. These activities combined with adding people as I meet them accounts for the vast majority of my network on LI but they just scratch the surface of the utility of the tool.
Along the lines of People You May Know, you can look for colleagues from current and past jobs as well as alumni from your schools. Since I have worked for the same small company for the last eleven years, I’ll speak to schools but companies work the same way. I went to a small school for undergrad so I can sort those alums by graduation year and get a manageable number (~500). For larger schools, this feature is not as user friendly (>3,500 people on LI graduated in 2000 from UWMadison). One of the ways to work around this is to find Groups that have a more narrow focus. The UW Madison Chemistry Department Alumni group has ~360 members and I am connected directly or one person away from just over half of those people. Another group of interest to me is Badgers in the Biotech & Pharmaceutical Industry. The group has ~640 members and I am connected directly or one away to all of the members. Looking through these pages for people I know but am not connected with could be a good step to strengthen my connections.
Making New Connections – Making connections and developing relationships follow the same principles online as in real life so I’ve incorporated some general comments on my tenets of networking. (Overall, I am a believer in balance – giving as much as you get. I am not always able to give back directly but I strive to pass that along to others, which generally means I am trying to help others connect.)
If you have met someone already, remind them in your invitation where you met and maybe what you discussed. The only time I send the generic LI invite is to someone I know well and see often, which is also the only time I will accept generic invites.
As in real life, the best way to meet someone is through a common connection. While this approach isn’t always necessary on LI, you are more likely to get a response if your message says that your colleague Jane Doe said I should contact you. If you take this approach, I suggest you ask your contact first. Send them a name (or list of names) and ask if you can use their name in your introduction. While this step seems like extra work, the potential benefits include getting additional contact suggestions and/or a recommendation to the new connection. You will also avoid any awkwardness from misinterpretations of the difference between we have a common contact vs. this person told me to contact you.
If you are approaching someone cold, your message should have at least two key components. First, you should demonstrate that you took the time to learn something about the person. Even something as simple as I see that you got your PhD at UW Madison Chemistry with Jane Doe and I got my degree there with John Smith. You are asking for something (the connection) and you should make it as easy to say yes as possible. The second part is to mention why you are interested in connecting. You are likely to get a better response if have a purpose beyond getting a job at their company, selling them something or mining their connections.
What if you are looking for a job? In my experience and from talking with others, leading with that objective doesn’t often have the desired impact unless the contact is a recruiter. An alternative could be to say what your general goals are (you are interested in a job in their city) and you are interested in what experience they can share on how to get there. Think about what you can learn from the person – how they got their job? what their company culture is? was their degree a good investment for the job they have? what training did they get to enable them to move from one discipline to another?
If you ask for something, make it easy for the other person to say yes, and/but. For example, if you want to talk to them, give options that range from easy (10 minutes on the phone) to hard (lunch). Yes, I am happy to meet with you, but we’ll have to do it by phone. If you want them to make a connection for you, give them an easy option (someone who has made the transition from basic science to regulatory affairs) and a more challenging one (Jane Doe, VP of Regulatory Affairs for a Fortune 500 company). Yes, I’d be happy to introduce you to someone in regulatory affairs, but you should start by talking with John Smith, a regulatory manager at a local company. If you ask and receive, you will likely make a strong impression if you follow up with a thank you and one line how what they did helped you.

Maintaining Connections – As long as people are using LI, access to your connections provides a self-updating electronic Rolodex. With people moving around so much these days, this feature alone could be enough to use LI. Historically, keeping track of colleagues as they move has been my most frequent use of LI. Another benefit is that you can export your connections in a few formats, including Outlook and Address Book (See How to below).

Putting the Social in Social Media – So far, the features may seem professional and not at all “social”. Remember that LI is primarily a professional site. Even the “social” discussions are more directed and formal than other places, such as Twitter.
Learning and Interacting – Discussions are generally segregated into groups, which seem overly plentiful in LinkedIn. For example, there are a wide variety of groups dedicated to cancer drug development. The value of the groups is greatly impacted by the person running the group. Many of the groups appear overrun by sales pitches for people, products, services, etc. That said, I recently had a valuable discussion in one of the oncology groups about statistical design of xenograft models. I included the thread at the bottom of this post. (I am also testing out Quora as an alternative for more technical conversations but so far have had minimal success.)

Updates, News, Etc. – You can use the network updates in LI in a similar fashion as Twitter or an RSS feed. A major difference is that you seem to be defaulted in to all updates for all contacts in LI, which makes the main page appear cluttered. You can change your settings to see only certain types of updates (see How to at end of post). I ignore connection updates (Jane Doe is now connected to John Smith.). If you move beyond the main page, the activity is also sorted by Category (Updates vs. Connections) or by Connection (See How to below). If you don’t want to come back to LI and are an RSS fan, LI does provide a way to feed your network updates into your favorite RSS feed. (Note the mention on public vs. private feeds.)
In LI, you can hide updates from specific connections on your main page. The method took me a while to notice, but when you hover your cursor over an update “Hide” will appear in the top right of the update. I have only hidden a handful of people but I can see this tool becoming more useful as updating becomes more common. I’ve mentioned previously that my current personal bandwidth on Twitter is about 100. While lists are helping with that, I would overload quickly (or simply give up) if my LI ~650 contacts started updating frequently.
One reason I have hidden updates from specific people in LinkedIn is they feed updates directly from Twitter. I’m not a fan of this approach. When I first started using Twitter, I linked the two accounts. I did not anticipate that many of my LI contacts are not on Twitter. These folks would see my messages, which were particularly confusing when a conversation broke out in Twitter. Unless you have an account, you can’t get over see the other parts of the Twitter conversation.
Updates in LI can be more appealing at times because 1) you can use real names rather than @handle and 2) you don’t need as many abbreviations when you aren’t limited to 140 characters. If you want to use both, there is an intermediate step to allow Twitter updates into your LI profile. When you give LI permission, you can add #in to a tweet and the information will show up in as a LI status update.

How To
1) Export your contacts: Go to your Contacts page. At the bottom right, click on Export Connections.
2) Control what activity you see: Go Settings. Select the Account tab. Select “Customize the updates you see on your home page” and you should see a list of the update types. You will also see a tab that says Hidden that will keep track of the connections you choose to hide on the home page. You can also access these settings from the main page by hovering on “More” and then “Customize”
3) See activity by Category or Connection: On the main page, you can see 

Hover over “More” to see “See additional views”, which will bring up 

 The final tab provides all of your updates.

Samples Discussion from a LinkedIn Group

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