What to Do With LinkedIn Requests From People You’ve Never Met

Many of the students and young graduates I talk to understand the importance of LinkedIn. They know it’s the world’s largest online professional network, and they understand why it’s the perfect tool for both students and seasoned professionals to market themselves.

A key feature of LinkedIn is the ability to add connections—digital links to co-workers, clients, friends and other individuals you’ve worked with. LinkedIn encourages this by constantly showing you “People You May Know,” and provides you with the easy option of importing contacts from your email and other websites. But what do you do if someone who you don’t know or have never met sends you a LinkedIn request?

This happened to me a few times as a young professional, and I bet it happens to you as well every once in a while. LinkedIn users obviously want to grow the size of their substantive network: the people they know, the people they’ve worked with and the people that can contribute to their career development. But users, and especially students, love to increase the size of their network—and thus, the online perception of their popularity—so they’ll sometimes add people they don’t really know or accept invitations to connect from people they’ve never met. But if you get a request to connect from someone you’re not acquainted with, I recommend doing a few things:

Check to see if the invite includes a customized message. Sometimes you’ll get invites from strangers, but they’ll actually acknowledge the fact that they’ve never met you and they’ll explain their intentions. For example, I once received this message: “William, we haven’t met but I’d like to at some point. I’m building out my network of 20-something marketers and you seem like someone I should grab a coffee with. Let me know if you’re interested :).” Since this came from someone I didn’t know, I was initially reluctant to accept the connection, but I appreciated that this person—a more experienced professional—had included a personalized note. I accepted it, and this led to the development of real life contact.

Consider the possibility that you’ve met this person and since forgotten them. In this case, you need to think back, think hard and consider the following: Is this a really old friend? Is this a current colleague in a different department? What events or conferences have I been to recently? Considering the current pace at which we move through our day-to-day lives, it’s not terribly unlikely that you’ve met someone, but don’t remember. Given this possibility, you should take extra care to ponder the connection you may have to someone, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

Make an effort to meet or connect with the person in real life. If the person inviting you to connect has the potential to be a valuable contact, hold off on accepting, but ask them to meet. Try to make a real connection. I once received an invite from someone I definitely didn’t know, but that didn’t stop me from reaching out in this way:

“Hi Jane [not her real name], I have a horrible memory, so perhaps I don’t remember connecting IRL with you; having said that, I love meeting new people in the public relations industry and would be open to coffee or something to discuss ways we could leverage and build each other’s networks. Let me know if you’re interested. Cheers.”

In this specific situation, the person never got back to me, so from my point of view, she was just looking to increase her number of connections for the sake of increasing her popularity. Those are the types of people I try to avoid connecting with. However, professionals who are actually looking to network will generally accept these offers. They know that real relationships are cultivated online and offline.

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