Connect on LinkedIn…Or Follow?

“Dude, you look familiar. Aren’t we connected on LinkedIn?”​ (photo courtesy Mark Johnston)

“Dude, you look familiar. Aren’t we connected on LinkedIn?” (photo courtesy Mark Johnston)

LinkedIn seems to be pushing the idea of following as an alternative to connecting lately. It seems like we may be headed for a “third era” of connecting on LinkedIn. But to understand what this may mean, here is the abridged Bruce Johnston history of connecting on LinkedIn:

The early days of Connecting on LinkedIn (pre – 2018)

In the early days, say up until around 2016 or 2017, the mantra on LinkedIn was to “only connect with people you know well and that in turn know you well.” There was lots of talk about having tight, close networks of “trusted connections.” People would cite the Dunbar Number as proof that connection networks were impossible to maintain over a certain level.

Oddly, in the middle of all this talk about close knit networks and only connecting with people you know well, LinkedIn had an upper limit of 30,000 connections on any one individual’s network.

The permissive era of Connecting on LinkedIn (2018-2021)

Sometime around three years ago, a trend emerged where people started connecting more easily, and the trend has accelerated into this year. Whereas in the “old” days people tended to establish a relationship or at least trade messages before connecting, over the past three years LinkedIn users have just started sending connection requests to anyone who looked interesting. And to a large extent, those requests have been readily accepted. But the problem with this new loose concept of connecting was that the relationship still needed to be established.

This idea can easily be seen if you have asked a connection lately for an introduction to one of  their connections. The answer that often comes back is “I really don’t know that person that well and wouldn’t be comfortable introducing you.” Of course what they could also add is “…and to be honest, I don’t know you that well either.”

A third era?

Over the past six months or so, I am seeing more and more of LinkedIn pushing following over connecting, such as prompting users to put a “Follow” button instead of a “Connect” button as the default on their Profiles. And LinkedIn has talked about people complaining they are receiving too many invitations to connect.

What LinkedIn doesn’t talk about is all the spam messages from those connections we all so easily accepted. Because my guess is that one of the unintended side effects of this easy-connecting second era is that it has seeded the ground for automated tools on LinkedIn. Automation on LinkedIn five or seven years ago largely consisted of scraping tools and profile viewing tools. But these days the new tools take advantage of the new enthusiasm for connecting. Apps have been introduced that can send hundreds of connection invites and then hundreds of spam messages to those new connections. And those tools are not good for LinkedIn because if users see LinkedIn as a spam fest they will stop coming to LinkedIn. If that happens LinkedIn can say goodbye to all that lovely advertising revenue that Microsoft was highlighting in their last quarterly report.

There are things that LinkedIn can do – limiting the number of invites users can send is a good example. And LinkedIn could apply the algorithms to see if people are sending lots of the same generic message to connections, or checking to see that messages to connections actually are getting responses, or even limiting the number of messages users can send (I am an extremely active LinkedIn user but I do not initiate a hundred conversations with my connections every week). But what they really need to do is change user behavior. And one way to do that is to put the idea front and center that the default should be to follow someone instead of connecting with them.

Following could also be made more attractive if LinkedIn placed the content of people we follow more prominently in our feed. Typically, you follow someone in order to see their posts and content. And LinkedIn has talked about this. But there is a difference between appearing in our homepage feed and appearing prominently in our homepage feed. At any given time you or I will have hundreds of posts of all types in our feed. What’s important is what is at the top where we are more likely to see it.

LinkedIn tells us what we see featured prominently in our feeds is largely based on our Connection Strength Score, which is based on the interactions we have on LinkedIn with our various connections. To my knowledge, there is no Follower Strength Score. And how would you measure it? One alternative would be more subscriber type content like LinkedIn Newsletters, but that roll out is more of a crawl out.

Where do you stand in all this? Are you a fan of following or connecting? Has your idea of connecting versus following evolved over the past twelve months?

The obligatory disclaimer: I do not work for or have any association with LinkedIn, other than being a user who pays them for his Sales Navigator subscription every month. And in the spirit of transparency, I did not know several of my five thousand connections well before we connected. I won’t say which ones. Don’t tell LinkedIn.

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