Building a Less is More Network

Or how I went from 30,000 connections to 1,000 true fans

LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and the like are all built on a simple premise. The more you create, the more people follow you, the more others start to create, and so on. This perpetual cycle is built on an idea that originated over 40 years ago called Metcalfe’s Law.

Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and founder of computer networking firm 3Com, described the value of connecting computers as “N squared”. This means that the usefulness of a network is approximately based on the number of computers on that network squared. Two computers connected is not interesting whereas one billion computers forms the World Wide Web.

The same holds for connecting people. Two people connected is useful, but connecting more and more people can unleash ideas, innovations, and people power to create outsized outcomes. This is the basis for social media and over twenty years of online social networking starting with SixDegrees.com.

It was an idea I ascribed to with abandon. After the failure of my first tech startup exposed the fact that I had no network, I made it my mission to fix this starting in 2010. Eventually that focus led to where I am today, with a 25,000 subscriber newsletter, 17,000 connections on LinkedIn, and 6,000 followers on Twitter. Goal achieved, at least that is what I thought.

LinkedIn was by far the network I paid most attention to over the past five years. Other channels were still useful, but I abandoned them in favor of a more professional and structured network. I accepted most connection requests, and also sent out my fair share of requests as I was scaling up the Enterprise Sales Forum and later when I was launching a new product for Stack Overflow.

By all accounts, I succeed by the numbers. The reality though is what I ended up with was a very noisy and spammy network. Instead of building “N squared” value, it was costing me “N squared” effort. The cognitive load and cost to maintain was draining. So I declared “LinkedIn bankruptcy” and started over again with the goal of rebuilding a network on LinkedIn that would be valuable again.

LinkedIn and the monumental effort to make it useful as a network
LinkedIn and the monumental effort to make it useful as a network
LinkedIn and the monumental effort to make it useful as a network

Starting over allows me the opportunity to put the right foundation in place. When I started my account in 2005, there was no long term strategy. LinkedIn seemed more like an online resume and place to keep tabs on people’s professional changes. Without a principled approach to networking, I ended up with social sprawl and information traffic jams.

To correct for this, I crafted some principles to guide how I go about rebuilding a high quality network. These are the tenets I shared in my previous post:

  1. Connect with others that love what I do and add value to the people in my network,
  2. Share and engage with content that sparks constructive debate and learning,
  3. Help and support the people in my network to the best of my ability,
  4. Foster a culture of transparency, empathy, inclusivity, learning, and innovation.

The first tenet needs a bit more explanation. One thing I started to notice with my large network is that engagement did not rise as I added people. My network followed the “90–9–1 Rule”, based on the concept of “participation inequality” which states that for any sizable community, 90 percent will not be active, 9 percent will occasionally participate, and 1 percent will be deeply involved.

Engagement looked more like the “90–1–0.01 Rule” though. This led to two key realizations. First is that many unsolicited requests to connect came from people that had very little interest in my work. Even if there was fleeting interest from a post or a search leading to my profile, there was little motivation to go deeper. Second is that the past two decades spans a large shift in my own career, creating a very diverse network without focus. The result is a network with connections from a decade ago that do not overlap much with my current professional endeavors.

How do I change this? Years ago, I read the following in a book:

This key lesson from The Radical Leap helped me to stop seeking approval from others and instead focus on the value I create in the world. Not everyone has to love what you. If I am going to rebuild a network then, better to focus on those that care about my work.

I think of people that care about what you do as your “true fans”. This is not from a place of arrogance or narcissism, but simply recognizing that there are people in your life that are supportive of your success (besides your parents). Understandably, we tend to think of fans as people that follow artists or professional athletes, but fans exist for any type of work, profession, or hobby:

Instead of groupies or people buying your merch though, fans in this context are the people that will support you, follow your progress, offer praise, provide candid feedback, and cheer along during your victories. In turn you trust them because they are invested in your success. Those are your most important relationships and the people worth building a network around.

The fear most of us have from willingly declaring LinkedIn bankruptcy is whether we have enough of those fans. In the Kevin Kelly essay, he talks about getting to 1,000 true fans. Luckily, you are not an artist making your living off of people buying your music, videos, or pottery. But you need to start somewhere, and I propose you can build much stronger and more vibrant community with just 100 connections, and the rest of this post goes into my process for rebuilding a “less is more” network.

Rebuilding a More Focused Network

There were ten steps overall to rebuilding my network on a completely new account:

  1. Collect all contacts across systems and platform
  2. Clean up and enrich contacts
  3. Categorize contacts
  4. Curate your contacts to those that align to your tenets
  5. Identify top 100 people you most want to stay connected with
  6. Identify top 100 people that are your biggest supporters
  7. Email your top 100 most wanted to connect and analyze results
  8. Email your curated contacts not in your top 100 lists to connect
  9. Post content every couple of days and analyze engagement
  10. Email your top 100 supporters to connect and ask for support
  11. BONUS: Host a separate place for your top supporters to connect

Collecting my connections was a challenge given the sprawl. There were all my LinkedIn connections, but also a bunch of people not connected on LinkedIn (or had no account there). Of all the people I have unique and identifiable information on, it comes to about 30,000 contacts. Those that would comprise my new network though all have LinkedIn accounts and are connected with me there, so that was my starting point.

As an aside, why did I have so many connections? It was at a point when I thought LinkedIn could be my “real-time” contact manager to track things like job changes. I also thought a large network could boost content engagement, but as I shared above, engagement never increased. LinkedIn also turned out to be a lousy contact manager as it only provides a limited set of data to download and relevant updates always got lost in the noise of the LinkedIn content feed. So much for being a useful personal CRM*.

Because LinkedIn is stingy with data, this meant more work for me. Luckily, I had kept fairly clean records in Google Contacts, but I still did not have the most up-to-date job changes. Therefore, I downloaded my LinkedIn connections** and matched them up with Google Contacts.
The only key available to match contacts is full name. LinkedIn only gives you First Name, Last Name, Company, Job Title, and Date Connected in a download (Email is included, but users must opt-in to allowing their emails to be downloaded). Once I matched my LinkedIn download with my contacts, I was able to update Company and Job Title.

Because of job changes, I often did not have the most recent work email. Sometimes I had no working email address at all for some contacts. Email may not be important for you, but it is critical for me as that is how I send out updates to my contacts and invites to events. This meant an added step.

There are plenty of tools available for getting accurate emails from contacts. I used SalesQL, but there are many excellent options available. My choice was based on information that I wanted to capture beyond email address, such as LinkedIn URL, industry, and company domain. The URL is a useful unique identifier and along with company domain name, is used by CRM systems like Salesforce or HubSpot to bring in additional information to enrich contact data.

One of the useful features of LinkedIn in the past was the ability to tag contacts. They took this feature away causing grief for many. With my recent focus on developers and engineering leaders however, I needed a means to categorize my contacts.

How you categorize or tag is up to you and your priorities. I base it on functional role and seniority. For technologists, I have categories like HEADTECH, ENGINEER, DATA, AI, etc. I have horizontal categories as well like FOUNDER, INVESTOR, SALES, and so forth. Overall, I have 15 categories in total and I try not to get too granular unless there is an area I wish to focus on like AI.

Categorizing many thousands of contacts is a royal pain. To make it easier, I created a word cloud of all the job titles and tried to group similar ones together. Then I created a rubric to help me determine how to categorize contacts most efficiently. For example, I categorized all contacts with “sales”, “account executive”, “business development”, and “revenue” in their job role as SALES. By doing this, I avoided having to visit thousands of profiles one by one to figure out the proper category.

Less is more in the right context, thanks Frank Lloyd Wright
Less is more in the right context, thanks Frank Lloyd Wright
Less is more in the right context, thanks Frank Lloyd Wright

Going through this process helped to highlight connections that simply do not make sense to keep any longer. For example, I had a huge number of contacts in Real Estate sales because of the Enterprise Sales Forum but who are not in B2B sales and never engaged in any of my content. My tenets helped guide what connections were worth keeping.

The next step was to build two lists; a Most Wanted list and a True Fan list. The Most Wanted list is for the people I most wanted to stay in contact with such as influencers, executives, and other important contacts I am not very close with. The True Fans list is for people that have most closely followed and engaged with me. Because calling these folks “True Fans” sounds odd, we will use the term “Key Supporters” going forward. These lists should not overlap and should be of a decent size, so I set the goal of 100 people in each list, though my lists ended up being larger.

The order of your outreach is important. The goal is to iteratively build layers of your community to understand how each layer engages. If you add everyone at once, then you have no clarity as to how people might engage and how to track growth.

I recommend creating these layers in a way that may seem counterintuitive. I added my Most Wanted first. The reason is that I want to see how strong of a connection I had formed with the people in this group. I looked both the percentage that responded to my email invite to connect to my new LinkedIn account and how many responded to a direct LinkedIn connection request. Then I tracked engagement on a few LinkedIn posts to see if my Most Wanted cohort was responding.

The purpose of the analysis is more than just to see if anyone is listening. The metrics provide a window into Influencer Rate and a baseline to work from. Influencer Rate is simply my way of tracking progress on engagement over time and is a weighted metric based on views, likes, and comments per original LinkedIn post. By testing with a targeted group like the Most Wanted cohort, you have a proxy of how much reach you have without the distortion of your Key Supporters cohort.

At this point, I was ready to start adding contacts from my general curated contacts list. I am doing this in multiple layers because of the sheer number of contacts I have even after curating my list. Some of these layers are based on my categories and other are based on periods from my work history. Then I analyze who follows through on connecting on LinkedIn and the engagement on a few posts.

The last step is to add the top 100 Key Supporters. To be transparent, I did add some of my top 100 Key Supporters earlier than planned, but that is okay since they proactively reached out to connect upon hearing of my new account (definitely a sign of caring about what you do).

The reason to add this group last is the nature of existing relationships. They are already going to engage with your content. That would impact getting a pure Influencer Rating as a baseline. Once you have added all the contacts that you want in your new network however, your Key Supporters will be helpful in driving higher engagement across people inside and outside your network.

You might be tempted to stop here once you have your new LinkedIn network established. However, I have also found it helpful to maintain a separate space to foster a genuine community feel with my Key Supporters. LinkedIn is more like a broadcast channel rather than a place people can collaborate. To address this, I created a Slack group (I call it my Challenge Network) and an email list to keep everyone updated and connected to each other, which aligns with my tenets of helping others and enabling the free flow of sharing and collaboration.

Now you may think this is entirely overkill. In fact, some of the commentary from my last essay thought I should just have deleted a bunch of people and call it the day. But I find myself coming back to a maxim that has always proven true in my work and life:

I was optimizing something that was not working well and never was going to work well. I was working to make LinkedIn work instead of having LinkedIn work for me. This meant the fastest path to sanity and a working community was a complete reboot.

The early results are promising. My Challenge Network has been super helpful for me and it is great to see some of the folks engaging with each other. My new LinkedIn account is bubbling up much more relevant content and engagement on my early posts is showing higher Influencer Ratings. The plus side is that I have all this without the overhead and headaches and noise of my previous account.

I can now say with confidence that I have the makings of a real community.

* Personal CRM is a customer relationship manager that can be used for personal purposes. I ended my futile decades-long quest however without ever finding any useful solution.
** There are two download options from LinkedIn, either just connections or all of your data which includes invites, messages, posts, etc. Choose just connections which takes ten minutes to complete instead of the 24 hours you have to wait for a full data download.

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, enterprise agility, community building & software engineering culture. Author 👉 https://twitter.com/marksbirch

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