“Corporate IP attorneys like myself are constantly typecast as LinkedIn buyers, viewed as a source of coveted business in a highly competitive field…. This has been both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity to be impressed—or not.”
One of the challenges in networking is everybody thinks it’s making cold calls to strangers. Actually, it’s the people who already have strong trust relationships with you, who know you’re dedicated, smart, a team player, who can help you.
— Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn
As of December 2020, LinkedIn, Microsoft’s social networking service for professionals, has over 722 million total members in 200 countries and regions worldwide. Its growth seems unstoppable: the service continues to attract legions of newcomers to the workforce and more seasoned late adopters. Meanwhile, existing members are expanding their engagement, leveraging LinkedIn in new ways they hope will prove fruitful.
Intellectual property professionals—defined broadly here as persons or entities whose professional work involves or relates to IP or IP practitioners—abound as members on LinkedIn. Law firm, corporate, and government attorneys and their colleagues. IP and legal service providers of all kinds, from litigation and prosecution support to software and IP monetization. Judges and law school professors. Legal associations, recruiters, and producers of IP conferences. The list goes on.
All IP professionals who join LinkedIn are sellers in the sense that they’re looking to market themselves or their organizations to those on LinkedIn whom they perceive as buyers. In the mind of a seller, a buyer has a present or future need for something offered by the seller, or otherwise can offer the seller some kind of professional benefit. Notably, the same person on LinkedIn may be both a seller and a buyer. For instance, a law firm lawyer is a seller to prospective clients of the firm and a potential buyer of IP software offered by a solutions provider.
Not surprisingly, corporate IP attorneys like myself are constantly typecast as LinkedIn buyers, viewed as a source of coveted business in a highly competitive field. For me, LinkedIn has become the single most active forum where sellers attempt to pitch me services. This has been both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity to be impressed—or not.
In this article, I share my personal “don’ts” and “do’s” for IP business development on LinkedIn. I’d like to see sellers increase their chances of success—and decrease the amount of buyers’ time they consume by pursuing suboptimal strategies.
My Experience on LinkedIn
I joined LinkedIn in 2006, having heard good things from a few contacts. Admittedly, the accolades were extremely vague, but I figured I had nothing to lose.
Then, as my career progressed and LinkedIn came into its own, I decided to invest more time and energy in maintaining and refining my profile, and connecting with other professionals on the platform.
Overall, I’ve found LinkedIn to be a highly worthwhile vehicle for selling and buying purposes that I initiate. However, I’ve become increasingly disappointed by patterns of selling initiated by others—patterns that have intensified in recent years.
This is not to say that all sellers act in ways that I question. In fact, I’ve received many gracious, meaningful connection requests and follow-ups over the years. Unfortunately, as time has marched on, questionable interactions have become far too plentiful.
It’s against this backdrop that I share these perspectives.
Losing Strategies for IP Business Development on LinkedIn
I’ve seen sellers on LinkedIn ply the following strategies time after time. When selling, have you tried them?
1.Sending an avalanche of connection requests to people you don’t know.
Some sellers operate under the assumption that biggest is best. They think that the more IP professionals they connect with on LinkedIn, the greater their likelihood of winning business. They may also view a large professional network as lending an air of credibility in buyers’ minds. Other sellers may unconsciously seek connections as an ego boost.
For such reasons, some sellers almost obsessively send connection requests to strangers.
2. Not bothering to carefully scrutinize people’s profiles.
Sellers may neglect to undertake even the most basic due diligence before attempting to connect with a buyer. It’s not uncommon for me to receive a connection request and message from a seller whose offerings clearly are incompatible with my needs.
For instance, a sales representative may push a software solution for IP boutique law firms, clearly unaware that I’m a corporate IP attorney. Never mind that my LinkedIn profile makes my practice setting crystal clear.
3. Assuming that every IP professional needs and wants to hear from you.
Just because a buyer has the earmarks of a desirable client doesn’t mean that such buyer needs what a seller is selling, or is willing to devote time to hearing the seller’s pitch. Yet, so many sellers feel no compunction about knocking on everyone’s door, taking a shotgun approach.
4. Bombarding new connections with messages.
After a prospective buyer accepts a connection request, some sellers launch a veritable messaging campaign. The typical sequence goes like this: the seller sends a first message to the buyer, often requesting a call or in-person meeting. The buyer doesn’t respond. The seller sends multiple subsequent messages, none of which receive a reply.
In some instances, the seller’s messages are generated by automated messaging tools when the buyer is uncommunicative. In other instances, the tone of the seller’s messages is overly familiar; the seller and buyer are perfect strangers, yet the seller addresses the buyer like they have an established professional relationship or even are friends.
5. Relying upon messaging as your ticket to credibility.
Too often, LinkedIn sellers push their IP-related wares without taking meaningful preparatory steps to establish credibility. They “cold call” prospects without having done any homework, without having cultivated a value proposition, and without being well-positioned to offer differentiated services. Instead, they think that a friendly elevator pitch, delivered within a LinkedIn message, InMail, or invitation, carries sufficient weight to induce a prospect to begin a conversation.
6. Treating LinkedIn like a friendship network.
It’s not uncommon for one’s LinkedIn feed to include content that’s obviously out of place, bearing no discernible professional relevance. Family photos, banter among friends, and pointed political statements increasingly clog the platform. Clearly, some LinkedIn sellers seem to forget that their forays into peripheral matters are visible to their connections. Others don’t seem to care.
The content of sellers’ messages may be similarly incongruent with buyers’ reasonable expectations. I’ll never forget the time that a new connection—an IP practitioner at a major corporation, whom I didn’t know—thanked me for accepting his LinkedIn invitation. Moments later, he sent me a second message suggesting that I purchase his self-published novel on Amazon.
Why Are They Losing Strategies?
From my vantage point, the above selling strategies are intrinsically ineffective and counterproductive. To varying degrees, they prize quantity over quality; they seek shortcuts to success; and they put emotional intelligence on the back burner.
The net result is for well-intentioned sellers to self-sabotage their credibility and, in the process, any hopes of making a sale. Their tactics may give buyers the impression that they don’t value others’ time. Moreover, sellers may come off as annoying, slippery, or creepy. At the end of the day, buyers feel that their time is being wasted by fungible sellers who have little to offer but distracting, aggressive messaging and prodding.
Winning Strategies for IP Business Development on LinkedIn
In contrast, IP professionals on LinkedIn can apply the following strategies to maximize their effectiveness when selling to buyers.
1. Be selective about whom you approach.
Instead of sending a connection request to any IP professional who looks like a buyer, consider a more selective approach. Avoid reflexively contacting any stranger who shows up in a keyword search or is connected to others in your network. Concentrate your energies on individuals most likely to be receptive to your selling efforts, and on trusted contacts who may help you connect with such individuals.
Networking based on existing relationships is a powerful engine for IP business development on LinkedIn, just as it is offline. If you direct the majority of your connection requests to persons you’ve actually met, or to persons with whom you share a mutual contact willing to vouch for you, you’ll stop spinning your wheels and forcing buyers to spin theirs.
When you identify a prospective buyer with whom you have no existing relationship or mutual contact, try using LinkedIn’s “Follow” function when available. This will allow you to see the buyer’s LinkedIn activity, and thus learn more about the buyer, without forcing a connection. Nothing precludes you from reaching out personally in the future.
2. Do your research before making contact.
One sure-fire way of turning off a buyer is failing to undertake minimal research before initiating contact or attending an introductory meeting. Among other things, your failure to do so telegraphs incompetence on your part, as well as a casual disregard for the buyer’s time.
At a minimum, study a prospect’s LinkedIn profile and network, and conduct other online research, to ascertain whether, and how, your capabilities might align with the prospect’s needs. If you’re being honest with yourself, in some cases you may conclude that the alignment is too tenuous: it’s wise not to make a connection, at least at present.
3. Create content to establish your credibility and relevance.
It’s true that a polished, informative message can foster the early stages of a new professional relationship on LinkedIn. Still, to move to the next level, your words should be backed up by stronger indicia of expertise and service offerings that differ from those readily available. As a seller, you need to stand out favorably from the crowd; otherwise, buyers are likely to dismiss your attempts to connect.
As such, create LinkedIn content that is substantively valuable to current clients and potential buyers. This can take the form of articles, posts, profile details, and other materials that highlight your bona fides and distinguish you from the pack.
4. Always apply emotional intelligence to your selling tactics.
Emotional intelligence is “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” To sell effectively to IP professionals on LinkedIn, you should hone and apply this ability, even though many of your initial interactions may be through written communications and thus feel impersonal.
For example, you should be cognizant of how buyers are likely to perceive you and calibrate your communication tone, content, and rhythm accordingly. Besides attempting to put yourself in their shoes, you should strive to be as informed as possible about the competitive selling landscape in which you operate.
You may well face an uphill battle when attempting to engage with strangers. Be prepared to take silence or no for an answer. Recognize that it may be best to move on gracefully rather than intensifying your attempts to connect. Your persistence may backfire, doing lasting damage to your credibility.
5. Leave your personal life and views on the sidelines.
The world is watching you on LinkedIn, just as it does on other social media platforms. Chances are, even if your target buyers fit a relatively homogeneous professional profile, personally they may have widely divergent world views and sensibilities.
Therefore, it’s prudent to aim for the middle. Try your utmost not to treat LinkedIn as a proxy for Facebook, Instagram, or similar social networks.
Consider these suggested rules of etiquette for your public activity on LinkedIn:
a) Avoid posting personal photos, videos, accolades, or other updates of dubious professional interest to those in your network.
b) Refrain from voicing opinions unrelated to your professional life, such as political opinions.
c) Don’t offer unfiltered, bitter commentary, such as mean-spirited or exasperated pronouncements regarding judicial decisions, patent or trademark offices, corporations, and individuals.
d) Resist the urge to comment upon, like, or share others’ content that fits the mold of items a) through c).
e) Anytime you feel like engaging on LinkedIn, make a quick, honest mental assessment of the likely value and risk of that engagement from a selling perspective. If the value is low or the risk is material, don’t engage.
6. Make the necessary investments outside LinkedIn.
In theory, LinkedIn is a treasure trove for IP professionals. It seemingly gives you access to a vast pool of buyers without leaving the comfort of your office or home office. In practice, however, many sellers come to realize its limitations—the provided access can be shallow and extremely difficult to convert to desired results.
Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic is testing conventional assumptions about human engagement and may impact business development practices for years to come. Nevertheless, human nature remains static: Building trust and credibility with strangers is inherently challenging in general. It’s even harder when attempted principally via messaging on LinkedIn, where innumerable sellers vie for the same buyers’ attention.
Consequently, despite its benefits, LinkedIn is not a direct substitute for undertaking robust IP business development efforts outside the platform. Serious sellers invest intentionally in such outside efforts; they understand that it takes time, effort, and often money to cultivate the kind of relationships that translate directly or indirectly to success.
A seller’s outside investments may include attendance at in-person or virtual events for general or targeted networking purposes, speaking and publishing, sponsorships, serving on association committees, and otherwise pounding the pavement to grow professional relationships. LinkedIn can be employed as a useful complement to such investments.
Which IP Business Development Strategies Work Best for You on LinkedIn?
As noted at the outset, each of us on LinkedIn is a seller. I encourage you to reflect on the above winning strategies and tailor them to your IP business development activities. To get started, ask yourself these questions: How truly effective are your strategies, both in building quality relationships and achieving the results you want? How do you think you’re perceived by LinkedIn buyers? To what extent are you investing in business development activities outside the platform? What concrete steps can you take to recalibrate your strategies for greater success?
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