I spent a month on LinkedIn to find out if it’s a waste of time

I’ve had LinkedIn since I started my career, but never really used it. It was just one of those accounts I created because people told me that I should. My only real interaction with it was reading, and subsequently ignoring, messages from people trying to sell me things and people trying to headhunt me for jobs that I’m not even qualified for.

LinkedIn recently came up in conversation with my friend Marcus Hemsley, co-founder of Fountain Partnership, and he convinced me it could be useful, if I knew how to use it. Marcus summarised an approach that he had been told by James Potter, “The LinkedIn Man“. It seemed to make sense, but I had questions that needed answering:

Could LinkedIn actually benefit my life or business?

Was it worth investing my limited time in it?

Would it become addictive?

I decided to spend a month following Marcus’ approach as closely as possible. In this post I’ll introduce the approach that he gave me, what I actually did, and how it impacted my life.

Four principles to make LinkedIn useful

Here are the principles that Marcus introduced to me as key to start getting value from LinkedIn.

Principle number one: It’s not social media

LinkedIn is often talked about in the context of social media channels. I regularly hear people say “We need to ensure that our business is active on all of the main social channels; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn etc”. However, LinkedIn is specifically designed to be a professional network, i.e. it’s for work.  You should think of it as the modern equivalent of a little black book of contacts, or Rolodex, if you remember those. That’s a different proposition from social media sites where we share videos of skateboarding dogs.

Tillman the bulldog skateboarding
Tillman the skateboarding dog is probably not relevant on LinkedIn

Principle number two: Quality is more important than quantity

It really doesn’t matter how many connections you have on LinkedIn, so long as they are real, high quality connections. They should be people that you actually know, respect and want to be in touch with. The easiest way to validate this is to ask yourself, “Would I be happy to have them over for dinner?” Or at the very least, “Would I meet up with them for a coffee?

If not, why are you connected to them on LinkedIn?

You should filter all new connections on this criteria, but what about all those strangers already in your connections list?

You have two options. The simple option is to delete them from your account. However, what if you would like to know them? In that case, you can send a message to invite them to meet and get to know you. If they accept your invitation that’s fantastic. You will meet someone new. If they don’t accept or they don’t reply, then just delete them from your connections. You can always add them again later.

It sounds ruthless, but you should end up with a list containing only people who you know and trust professionally. This means that your LinkedIn account is now in a safe space. You can now feel comfortable saying what you really think, and you have a concise list of people with whom you can discuss common interests.

Principle number three: Post something interesting everyday

Now that you’ve created a network of people who you know, you should start sharing your thoughts and experiences with these people on a regular basis. Not spammy advertising messages, not trying to sell them anything and not pointless pitches trying to show off how cool your company is, but short snappy content about what you really think in a professional context. Your posts should be informative, thought provoking and inspiring. By doing so, you’re adding value to their day, while also communicating who you are. Everyday might seem a lot, but it’s good practice in writing and helps to keep your work high in the consciousness of people you know. Drip, drip drip.

Principle number four: Start meaningful conversations

We all have people in our lives who we love talking to and haven’t spoken to for ages. Now we’ve removed the strangers from our LinkedIn account, it’s easy to scan our contacts to spot people we want to catch up with. We can ask if they would like to arrange a time to catch up, and by doing this, we can create more meaningful interactions and stronger relationships. Precisely the point.

We’ve reviewed the theory, so how did it go in practice?

I started this month-long experiment on the 18th March with a LinkedIn profile that had not been updated for a long time. I had 551 contacts. I decided that my first action should be to update my profile with a less-is-more approach. Instead of adding more information, I deleted a load of old information that’s no longer relevant, re-wrote my bio so that it could be read at a glance, and I updated my profile image.

With that done, I started going through my contacts. Marcus had suggested using the LinkedIn mobile app, sorting contacts from A to Z and going through the alphabet methodically for a couple of minutes at a time. This worked well and I cut 150 people from my contacts list within a few days. I also added a few people I know who weren’t in my LinkedIn contacts.

Going through the contacts list gave me an opportunity to identify some people who I wanted to catch up with. This lead to a number of positive interactions.  I had several interesting conversations on LinkedIn Messenger itself, but I also had a meeting in person with a like-minded small business owner, caught up with someone on the train who I hadn’t seen for a while, and made peace with an old friend who I’d been out of touch with since we stopped working together.

What about my daily LinkedIn posts?

I decided at the outset that I would only access LinkedIn on working days, so I only published posts to my LinkedIn account 20 times in the month. I enjoyed this and quickly learned that LinkedIn only shows people the first paragraph by default, so the first three lines need to get the message across. Less is more!

I also learned that people engage more with content that talks about real people rather than abstract concepts, and with posts that have a good photo or video. It’s obvious in hindsight.

It’s not just about me though. With my LinkedIn feed now only showing updates from people who I want to hear from, it became an effective way of learning from others and keeping up to date with their news and ideas.

It was a positive month on LinkedIn, and I lived happily ever after.

Was it too good to be true?

If you stopped reading at this point, you would think that this experiment went perfectly and there were no downsides.  Of course that’s not the case.

About 10 days in, I realised that strangers were liking and commenting on some of my posts. This “safe space” where I can say what I really think amongst people who I know and trust was in fact open to the general public.  It turns out that LinkedIn will share publicly unless you change the settings to specify otherwise. It was a stupid oversight that made me a bit uneasy.

However, I decided that my posts don’t need to be private, and so I left them public to see what happens. I ended up chatting to a couple of new people who had seen my posts and who I am now in touch with. Being open has its benefits.

There was a catch though

The catch is that LinkedIn is almost identical to Facebook. You can call it a “professional network”, but it’s fundamentally just Facebook for Work. For someone like me who stopped using Facebook after the EU referendum in order to protect my mental health, I did find it worrying when constant notifications kept luring me back in, only to be presented with an infinite stream of content. LinkedIn is addictive!

I quickly put some safeguards in place. I disabled notifications wherever I could figure out how, decided that I would only login once per day and would close the browser tab within five minutes of completing my daily post, unless I was actually engaged in a direct conversation with somebody. I would also avoid it completely outside of work hours. These measures, so far, seem to have been effective.

Should you do more on LinkedIn?

After this month long experiment, I feel for the first time in over a decade that my LinkedIn account actually has a purpose. This experiment taught me that LinkedIn can be worthwhile if you embrace it as a place to connect with other people who you already know professionally, rather than as a place to collect connections with random strangers. So long as I set myself clear boundaries, it seems to be a  worthwhile investment of a few minutes each day.

To sum up, if you want to get more out of LinkedIn, try following these simple tips:

  1. Update your profile to show who you really are today.
  2. Clean out your connections to only include people who you would be happy to meet for a coffee.
  3. Post concise, thoughtful content that you think will be of interest to people you know professionally.
  4. Reach out to people that you haven’t spoken to for a while and catch up, ideally in person.
  5. Beware that LinkedIn can be addictive!

I intend to continue this experiment a bit longer.

If you know me and we’re not connected on LinkedIn, please do add me. If you don’t know me and we are still connected on LinkedIn, feel free to delete me. If you tried connecting with me recently and I didn’t accept, it’s probably because we need to get to know each other better. Fancy grabbing a coffee?