When you're building your online network, focus on meaningful LinkedIn connections and you'll get much better results.

Among the many social networking options available today, LinkedIn stands out as a top option for professionals and job seekers. The site is specifically designed to foster business networking, which makes it an ideal place to develop your professional connections. But having a few hundred or even a few thousand LinkedIn connections won't necessarily help your career; it's far better to have a few meaningful connections than a huge number of useless ones.

What is a meaningful LinkedIn connection?

A meaningful connection is one that creates value for both parties involved. Such connections can easily blossom into lifelong relationships, but for a meaningful connection to last, it has to be a two-way street. If you're the only one getting anything out of the connection, why should the other person bother to stay connected?

Since LinkedIn is all about business networking, a meaningful LinkedIn connection likely involves adding professional value on some level. It might mean helping you to find that perfect job, providing advice and mentorship to boost your career, or giving you access to potential clients.

Finding the right person

If you've spent any time on LinkedIn, you've no doubt received invitations to connect from total strangers, many of whom simply use the default LinkedIn request to connect. These requests typically come from people who adopt the “shotgun” approach to networking of building as many connections as they possibly can — regardless of whether a particular connection is likely to provide value or not.

Instead of adopting this approach, try focusing on quality over quantity. A great place to start building connections is with the people you already know. LinkedIn offers several tools to help you find and connect with specific people: You can import a list of email contacts, browse through the “People you may know” section of your My Network page, or simply enter the person's name into the search bar on the LinkedIn homepage.

Joining relevant LinkedIn groups is another great way to meet people and make meaningful connections. You can search for groups by name or keyword by using the search bar at the top of your LinkedIn homepage, and LinkedIn will also recommend groups that it believes are a good fit for you. LinkedIn's list of recommended groups is in the Groups option from the Work menu; you can bring it up by clicking the Discover link at the top of the page.

Sending an invitation

Ideally, every LinkedIn invitation you make will be to someone you already have some sort of connection with. It may be a colleague, someone you met at a tradeshow or marketing event, or even a friend of a friend — just be sure to mention the connection in your LinkedIn invitation.

For example, if you are in the same LinkedIn group with a person and want to connect with them, you might start your invitation by saying “Hello Joe, you may remember me from XYZ group on LinkedIn. Since we are in the same line of work and share many of the same interests, I thought it would be a great idea to connect with you.” It's best not to assume that the person you're connecting with will immediately remember you because a conversation that was deeply meaningful to you may not have made the same impact on them.

Related: How to Maximize Your LinkedIn Endorsements

Building the relationship

Asking a near-stranger to do you a favor right off the bat is unlikely to give them a good impression of you. Instead, take the opposite approach: Offer to do something for your new connection as early as possible in the relationship. If you can slide a favor offer into the connection invitation yourself, that's perfect. By showing the other person that you can immediately be of value, you'll be encouraging them to not only connect with you but to also put in the time and effort it takes to create an ongoing relationship.

Your favor doesn't have to be a big deal. In fact, starting off small is usually best because offering to do a huge favor for a distant acquaintance can make that person very uncomfortable. If you're connecting with someone who lives or works in the same area that you do, offer to take them out for coffee or a casual lunch. Not only is this a nice thing to do, but it also gives you the perfect opportunity to start getting to know that person.

How to respond to LinkedIn invitations

Often you won't be the one initiating the connection request. In fact, if you're active on LinkedIn, you may be inundated with requests. In most cases, it makes sense to accept every connection invitation, even if it's just a generic request to connect. After all, if the connection turns out to be a meaningless one or they start spamming you with requests, you can always remove them from your network.

When you receive an invitation, it's a good idea to take a peek at the person's profile. LinkedIn profiles will often contain just the information you need to figure out how to turn a connection into a meaningful one.

For example, if you get an invitation to connect and that person works for a company you've always admired, you can message him back after accepting the connection and tell them how you feel about their company. After you've taken the time to have a few conversations with them and perhaps done them a favor or two, you can then take the next step and ask for their help (or better yet, their advice) with getting a job there.

Building a network of meaningful LinkedIn connections unquestionably takes more time and effort than simply inviting random strangers to connect with you. However, the rewards you can reap from your efforts are well worth the cost and can help push you towards your top career goals.

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