In the last post we introduced the concept of Social Selling within the architecture, engineering, and construction market space and confirmed that yes, it does make a lot of sense.  We also reviewed the first step in the process, developing a robust online presence, and the importance of LinkedIn to the Social Selling model. 

This week we’ll focus on the next step, which is developing your online network.  To do this you need to determine who you want to be in your network, and then create a strategy to connect with them. 

LinkedIn will likely be your single most valuable tool for this process.  Begin with the low-hanging fruit: current clients, past clients, vendors, long-term prospects, professional association colleagues, co-workers, community contacts, and other friends in the A/E/C industry and beyond.  Check to see if they are on LinkedIn.  Read their profiles, get to know them better, and then send them an invite to connect.

Most likely you’re already on LinkedIn, and you know that to connect with someone you need to demonstrate that you already “know” the person – whether they are a colleague (co-worker), former classmate, you’ve done business together, you are in the same LinkedIn group, or they are a friend.  If you select the “Other” option when asked how you know a person, you’ll be required to enter their e-mail address to prove that you know them. 

And while you probably know this already, you may have committed a LinkedIn sin: using the boilerplate message, which is “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.”  A word of advice: don’t use this message!  It demonstrates laziness, and gives the recipient no reason to want to connect with you.  It may work if you know someone really well – who will forgive your lack of creativity – but for others it demonstrates that you put very little time into trying to connect with them.

Write a custom personal note for each and every person you invite to connect.

If you are beginning a new project, and you want to connect with your client on LinkedIn, try something like:

“I’m so glad that we finally got to meet in person. I came away from yesterday’s start-up meeting even more excited about the project and what it means for your clients. Please feel free to reach out anytime with questions, concerns, or general comments – I’m here to help!"

Or maybe you met someone at a client association, like a chapter meeting of the International Facilities Management Association.  In that case, a note like this would be appropriate:

“It was great to meet you at IFMA last night. Thank you for sharing your firm’s challenges – we work with a lot of companies facing similar issues, so please feel free to use me as a resource or bounce any ideas off me.  I’m always happy to help, and look forward to staying in touch.”

Note that in both cases I’m not trying to sell, which would stop the budding relationship dead in its tracks.  I’m trying to connect, and I’m offering to help them in any way I can.  You only have 300 characters at your disposal, so make sure your note is impactful.  Remind them of how you know one-another.  Make the note personal.  Let them know what’s “in it” for them.

If you are on Twitter, look for the same “low hanging fruit” contacts – people that you already know.  Follow them.  If they don’t have a personal Twitter account, begin following their company accounts.  Even if you can’t directly connect with someone on Twitter, the social media platform will be very useful for information gathering.

It’s always good to follow the media as well – business media, A/E/C industry media, and the media that your clients read or follow. 

While it is not a hard and fast rule, there is a general etiquette that once you begin following an account on Twitter, that account begins following you back – when it makes sense.  This is an excellent opportunity to develop a virtual relationship because you’ll be reading one-another’s Tweets, and learning more about each other in the process. 

Facebook is another possible connection point, but proceed with caution.  Many people view Facebook as a platform limited to family and close friends.  So a client that will willingly connect with you on LinkedIn, and follow you on Twitter, may in fact draw the line with Facebook.  They may even view you as a stalker!  This doesn’t mean that you should totally avoid Facebook, but understand that it is often inappropriate unless you have a very close relationship.

There are a lot of other social media tools as well – Pinterest, Instagram, and Google+ to name a few.  For most of us, there are simply too many options, and very limited time available, so we need to focus on one or two.  Make LinkedIn central to your Social Selling strategy, and branch out from there.

Next Steps

Once you have identified people that you know on social media, and have connected, followed, or friended, it’s time to begin expanding your network.  One great way to do this is by joining groups in LinkedIn. 

When you do this you’ll be exposed to a whole new network.  If you belong to any professional associations or client organizations, join their LinkedIn groups and begin following their discussions.  There’s a lot of value to be found by joining peer groups, but as a business development tool you can’t beat the client groups.

Some are open (anyone can join), and others are closed (membership to the group is limited by predefined criteria, like being a member of a certain organization or holding a certain job responsibility).  The closed groups have a “lock” symbol by their name, and your membership can only be approved by an administrator.

If you are a member of the Design-Build Institute of America, National Society of Professionals Engineers, or U.S. Green Building Council (or any others), join those groups.  Also consider joining general peer groups like the A/E/C Industry Networking Group or Design and Construction Network.

Next, determine where clients and prospects may be congregating.  Some of their organizations could be the International Facilities Management Association, Construction Owners Association of America, or American Society for Healthcare Engineering.  They all have LinkedIn groups.  But remember, while some organizations will allow you to be in their LinkedIn group even if you aren’t a member of the organization, others require membership before they will approve your request to join their group.

Beyond organization-related groups, there are myriad other topical groups that you may want to join.  For instance, in the A/E/C industry, a lot of us are looking to connect with facilities managers.  Beyond the IFMA group and individual IFMA chapters, you could also look into the Facilities Management Group, Facilities Management Professionals International, or Corporate Real Estate and Facilities Management Professionals.

There are a number of reasons to join a LinkedIn group:

- Intelligence gathering – view conversations and learn trends
- Discover potential clients and teaming partners
- Build your reputation by participating in discussions
- Gain the ability to connect with prospects by being members of the same group

At this stage in the Social Selling process, we’re simply looking to expand our networks.  We’re not yet at the point of interacting with people we don’t know; that will come.

Something extremely helpful during this process is to determine the types of people that you want in your network.  For instance:

- If you pursue college and university work, you may want to connect with people holding the title of “director of physical plant”
- If you work in the manufacturing space, you may want to connect with individuals holding the title “facilities manager” or “plant engineer”
- If your focus is local government agencies, you may want to connect with professionals holding the title “county engineer” or “county administrator”

This is not really a hard exercise, just pull up your existing/past client list, and look at all the titles held by your contacts.  Some common titles will most likely emerge, and you can use these as part of your research process.

Within LinkedIn, you can do a simple search on “director of physical plant, college x.”  The person holding that exact title, or something similar to it, may come up.  Depending upon their privacy settings, you may or may not be able to view their full name and information.  You can also hop onto Google and do a “back-door” search, using a simple search string like “director of physical plant, college x, LinkedIn.”  Note that often LinkedIn results appear first, so you may not have to use the term “LinkedIn” in your search.

Within LinkedIn, you may find that you share a common group with this person.  Right now, make a note of who you want to reach, but do not try to connect!  Consider this your “watch list” – you want to connect with them, but first you want to learn more about them, which you will do under the next stage of Social Selling. 

Once you join a LinkedIn group, you can also view the other members.  This can provide a wealth of information, but it can also be quite tedious to go through the dozens – or even hundreds – of pages that list group members.  LinkedIn will tell you how you are connected.  If there is a “1st” next to their name, you are directly connected with them.  If there is a “2nd” by their name, it means that you are connected with someone who is connected to them.  So there are “two degrees of separation” between you and the person you want to meet.

In the next stage, we’re going to focus on information gathering, followed by content development and sharing.  So for a lot of your prospects – that is, people that you don’t know but want to know – you shouldn’t try to connect.  What reason do they have to connect with you?  If you are simply looking to expand your network, they probably have no incentive.  But as you learn more about them, and they learn more about you (as you begin providing content), there will be a reason to connect.

If you try to shoot before your gun is loaded, you’ll probably shoot yourself in the foot.  Your request to connect will go ignored because they will just view you as someone trying to sell them something.  Don’t be this person!

We know in this business that project incubation can run months to multiple years.  Patience is key here; Social Selling is an ongoing, never-ending process.  Don’t try to hit the ball out of the park your first at-bat in the big leagues! 

In a forthcoming post, we’ll go into depth about the information-gathering stage of Social Selling.