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5 Tips for Connecting With Strangers on LinkedIn

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The head of a Cleveland-area Job Bank issued a public apology after a rejection email she sent went viral. In it, she basically reamed out someone for wanting to apply to be a member of her private LinkedIn group because they hadn't "earned the right to ask me to connect on LinkedIn." You can read all about Kelly Blazek's epic fail here as well as her apology to the email writer and her followers here.

Whether or not Blazek was out of line in her response is not the issue here, though I do believe there are nicer ways to turn people away. The broader issue is how to go about asking people for help -- or even to connect - on LinkedIn.

I've been a LinkedIn member for a long time and aside from the valuable reporting tools it offers, I've made some meaningful and beneficial relationships. On the flip side, the other day I noticed I had over a hundred unanswered connection requests. It's not because I'm rude, or don't have time to answer. Okay, maybe I am a little time-challenged. The main reason I haven't responded is I have no idea who those people are or why I would want to connect with them. It's possible they're wonderful people and we could be helpful to each other, but I wouldn't know it from the invite they sent.

While LinkedIn is an amazing networking and job hunting tool, there is an etiquette to connecting with people you don't already have a relationship with. Here are some important guidelines to remember when reaching out on LinkedIn.

1. Always add your own personal message when sending a LinkedIn request.

I can't stress this enough. I meet and exchange business cards with dozens of people at various tech conferences. If, like me, it sometimes takes you a little time before you get around to making that online connection, it's possible I no longer have any idea who you are or how I met you. So if you meet someone at a conference or interview and want to connect, I highly recommend sending a personalized message, rather than using the generic LinkedIn message.

2. Explain why you're connecting.

I get dozens of invitations to connect and when I click to read more about the person, I often find they're launching a new product or funding a start-up. That means it's highly likely they want me to cover their company or brand. That's okay, but it's important to be up front about what you want from someone. Whether you're looking for an introduction, or press coverage, say so. That way the recipient can decide how or whether to respond. Also, if you're connecting just to connect, you're doing it all wrong. LinkedIn is not just about how many connections to perfect strangers you can gather, it's about building relationships with people.

3. Update your profile.

Nothing says loser like an invitation from someone who doesn't have a profile picture or a filled-out LinkedIn profile. According to LinkedIn, adding a profile picture makes it seven times more likely your profile will be viewed by others. If you offer no information as to who you are, and why you might have something in common, it's difficult for someone to want to connect with you.

4. Asking for career advice

This is tricky because while a nice note saying you read someone's recent article or follow their career along with a request for some advice can go a long way, it may not get you a meeting. Most people I know are really busy and while they may enjoy helping people, their resources and free time are limited. Instead of asking for an in-person meeting or a phone conversation, I suggest you ask if there are some articles or resources they can point you to that might be helpful as you get started on your career path.

5. Don't wait until you're out of work and need to network to reach out to people.

Begin your network of contacts now so you have connections to use as resources if you need them. When you do, it's okay to ask for help if you're clear about what you're looking for. If you need a recommendation from a colleague, say so. If you need an intro, that's okay, too. I've gotten requests from people asking for an email introduction to someone in my network who was advertising for a position they were interested in. That's perfectly fine and easy to do once in a while. And when you're in a position to give back, remember how someone else once helped you. It's what makes the world go round.

Tell me how you've used LinkedIn for job searching or connecting with people you don't already know. I want to hear success stories as well as failures.