What Really Happens When You Send a LinkedIn Invitation

A great thing about social media is its openness. It’s now easier and faster to find anyone, and find information about them, than ever before.

Like all great things taken to extremes, this openness is also one of the downsides of social media. It can be, sometimes, rather more open than we’d like. There are certainly people who’ve found me on Facebook whom I would prefer stayed buried in the distant past. Lots of people I’ve never met seem quite intent on connecting with me on LinkedIn. My LinkedIn In-box is presently clogged with 845 invitations to connect and 342 messages, the vast majority from people I don’t know. I suspect some of this is the product of career counsellors and social media experts who give advice along the lines of, “Connect on LinkedIn with recruiters who work in your area of focus,” but I’m not sure.

CNN recently reported how an American marketing executive damaged her career by writing a surly response to a 20-something jobseeker on LinkedIn, which then went viral. (Catch me on a really bad day, and that could have been me. Well, maybe not, but I certainly felt a pang for the executive.)

That incident got me and my colleagues at Executives Online thinking about people’s motives for connecting, and the habits and practices they likely have about making and handling unsolicited approaches. But we work in executive recruitment, so we know our stance and experience probably aren’t typical.

So we did a little research. We surveyed 400 senior managers and executives among our contacts, including almost 60 who work in recruitment, to learn how they operate.

The results are illuminating and have strong implications for executive job seekers:

Everyone’s looking for a job. Strong proportions of members are using LinkedIn to look for a new role for themselves – 52% of the non-recruiters and 21% of the recruiters are presently using it mainly for that reason. If you’re using LinkedIn to find a new role, be aware you’re in a crowded field, and that prospective contacts’ perspective on you may be more to do with whether you can help them get a job than their hiring you.

Finding a job on LinkedIn: It’s all about the recruiters. It’s virtually only the recruitment industry that’s on LinkedIn at any given time with the intention to hire or recruit. Less than 1% of the non-recruiters we surveyed are presently using LinkedIn to hire, compared with 40% of the recruiters. The person able to hook you up with a job is 50x more likely to be a recruiter than the hiring manager. The idea of connecting with an actual employer on LinkedIn and getting a job out of it seems unlikely, and contrasts starkly with what everyone seems to think about LinkedIn’s ability to connect employers and prospective employees without an intermediary. Connecting with recruiters in your area of focus seems sound, because they’re the ones who are actually using LinkedIn to recruit.

Everyone’s thinking what’s in it for them when accepting your invite. Strong majorities of both recruiters (87%) and non-recruiters (63%) will accept an invitation from someone they’ve never met, because of the inviter’s advantageous profile or because they think any/all connections are potentially useful. On one hand, this looks mercenary – the driving force behind connecting isn’t “I know and respect this person and want to stay in touch” but rather “I might be able to use them someday”. On the other hand, enlightened self-interest can be a powerful force, and there are many ways to make use of someone that is beneficial to that person too.

Real-world engagement still matters, as well as online engagement outside LinkedIn. The general business/professional population is more than three times as likely as recruiters to respond to LinkedIn invitations in ways that mirror their actual contacts, by only accepting people they know (in the real world or online): 21% of non-recruiters work this way, compared to 6% of recruiters. Since these folks will reject your LinkedIn “cold call”, you’ll have to engage them some other way.  It doesn’t need to be in person: in the absence of real-world contact, 16% of senior managers and executives will accept your invitation if they’ve engaged with you online, for example via e-mail, blog, or via a LinkedIn group.

People accept less discriminately than they invite connections. Everyone accepts connections on the basis of their usefulness, without there needing to be a prior contact motivating it: both recruiters (87%) and non-recruiters (63%) behave this way. However, it seems that everyone is rather more bashful when it comes to reaching out and extending invitations to connect, and prefer there to be a prior basis for their approach: Only 30% of the general business/professional population will extend a LinkedIn invitation to someone they’ve never met, although 54% of the recruiters will. Generally, everyone’s mode of extending invitations is more like real-world networking, skewing towards habits of inviting people they’ve known and met, than their mode of accepting invitations, where they’ll take a flyer.

Don’t look for the courtesy of a response. That American executive who wrote a reply is in the minority: 72% of non-recruiters and 78% of recruiters just ignore invitations they don’t accept.

A concept we came up with when reading that CNN story is the idea of “balance of power” in connecting. Some connections are of equals: a supplier providing a valuable service connecting with his customer, former classmates whose careers have followed similar arcs connecting to stay in touch, etc. In others, the balance of power is more skewed: one party has influence or power that the other wants to tap, without necessarily having the same to offer in return. What prompted the American executive to respond the way she did was the imbalance in the approach.

On LinkedIn, there are plenty of opportunities for the balance of power to be equal. Many are looking for jobs, but there are lots of recruiters looking for candidates. Many people are extending invitations to connect to people they don’t know, on the basis that they look useful, and their targets are accepting on the same basis. There’s also lots of imbalance. Recruiters comprise a relatively small proportion of the LinkedIn membership, and employers looking to hire a mere sliver, yet the majority of the business/professional population is on LinkedIn to look for a job. Many people build “carefully curated” circles of contacts for themselves, representing the contacts they’ve built over a long, successful career, and protect those networks by not accepting invitations unless they’re part of that experience, or otherwise look useful.

We think the takeaways for executives seeking their next role are:

1.      Find a way to stand out, to maximise connections. Standing out does not mean sending yet another LinkedIn invitation to a recruiter whose In-box is as clogged as mine. You’ll stand out if you raise and develop your online voice – in LinkedIn groups and elsewhere – where you put what you want aside for the moment and offer something of value to people watching you, which will mean they’ll be more open to a dialog.

2.      Support your LinkedIn with real-world and/or online engagement. Because so many people treat their LinkedIn network like their wallet of business cards, only connecting with people they know, don’t forget about face-to-face networking opportunities. Be aware that many recruitment companies – including Executives Online – use their own databases as the “first port of call” when working on a role, because it holds more information on each candidate than may be visible on their LinkedIn profile. So don’t forget to register too, which may lead to an interview. Also, be sure that your network already contains people you worked with, went to school with, are friends with, etc. They’re important, and their connections become part of your extended LinkedIn network.

3.      Be aware that an acceptance won’t necessarily lead to action. Because so many people accept and invite connections on the basis that they look useful – to them – be prepared for the idea that the intersection of your needs may not happen right away. This is particularly true for recruiters you invite to connect.

4.      Be aware of the noise, and these dynamics, and have a tough skin. Sent an invitation and feel like it went into a black hole? Don’t be offended. Assuming they even saw the invitation, the vast majority of members – recruiters and others – just quietly ignore invitations they don’t want to accept.

At Executives Online, LinkedIn is one of many channels we use to help identify candidates for our clients’ requirements. We know first-hand that, although it’s powerful, it’s not a magic bullet. Contact us today to learn how our blend of online methods and personal, proficient service delivers targeted and cost-effective executive recruitment, for interim management and permanent roles.

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