Recently, I was one of the facilitators at the Social Selling Forum in Melbourne, Australia. Over lunch, one of the attendees asked me – “When developing the LinkedIn network, should a sales professional focus on quantity or quality of the network?” A healthy conversation followed. I wanted to share some of my thoughts in regards to the Quantity / Quality argument, with you.
When it comes to the debate of QUANTITY (large network) v QUALITY (relevant network) on LinkedIn, my views are based on my experience of leveraging LinkedIn for a Sales agenda (since 2007) and what I have seen work for others (since 2008). I have witnessed, first-hand, the benefits of growing my 1st degree LinkedIn network and have also seen the size of the LinkedIn network play a significant role in the performances of sales colleagues and clients. As per a Sales Benchmark Index (SBI) statistic: “98% of sales professionals who have at least 5,000 LinkedIn contacts reach or surpass their sales quotas”.
The above statistic is frequently received with astonishment, scepticism or disbelief by business and sales leaders. To those who don’t quite agree with the validity of the numbers quoted, I humbly say, unless you have commenced a Social Selling journey, built your network one contact at a time and experienced the resulting benefits, it is tough to appreciate the value of network strength. It is like going to the gym, the results are not seen immediately. It takes time. For the results to appear many hours of hard work and dedication are needed. So too, for Social Selling to bear fruit, hard work and dedication are needed.
I have found the 5,000-number, quoted by SBI, to be an accurate inflexion point. The one word I would add to the statistic is “relevant”. I would argue that merely having 5,000 contacts is not enough. The 5,000 contacts must be “relevant” contacts. I now call the 5,000 1st string relevant connections, the LinkedIn Competitive Advantage Threshold (LCAT).
I found that after achieving a network strength of about 5,000 relevant contacts (LCAT), an increase of every 100 relevant contacts corresponded with a predictable increase in the number of open opportunities in my sales pipeline in any given quarter. If you are sceptical, I am happy to run you through the rationale for my claim. I welcome anyone to give drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org. I will talk you through the process and the mathematical basis of it.
Of the sales team I led (44 sales professionals selling B2B training and consulting services), those with larger network strength met their monthly quotas more frequently than those with relatively small LinkedIn networks. Yes, there were a few team members who were achieving quota without 5,000 contacts on the LinkedIn platform, however, the causality of this was tenure and account/territory patch. Indubitably, those with larger (relevant) networks, who were actively engaged on LinkedIn and building their network with consistency were delivering more predictable and consistent results. The above claim is not based on hyperbole or for the sake of effect. It is based on my experience of observing three quantitative samples:
My own sales performance post becoming engaged on LinkedIn. (Duration – 9 years)
As the General Manager of NSW & ACT, I carried a personal revenue quota. Upon arriving at about the 5,000 contacts (which was in 2009), I started writing increased revenue with more predictability and saw a significant increase in deal size. Upon deeper analysis of the closed business, my network strength and activity on LinkedIn surfaced as a key causal factor. Note – network strength AND activity. If you have a large network with no activity on LinkedIn, the yield is negligible. If you have a lot of activity but have a relatively small network, again, the yield is negligible.
Leading a B2B salesforce in NSW of 16 sales professionals (Duration – 8 years).
Just as the 5,000 relevant connections had allowed me to write more predictable revenues, I saw that some members of the NSW sales force too wrote more predictable revenues and started invoicing larger transactions as their network strength moved past the 5,000 mark and their LinkedIn activity grew.
Leading a B2B salesforce of 44 across Australia (Duration – 4 years).
As in the above two examples, when we introduced Social Selling to the other states (VIC and QLD), we saw a similar pattern of predictable performance and larger deal size with an increase in network strength and activity.
When it comes to the question of choosing between QUANTITY (large network) and QUALITY (relevant network), making a choice between the two, is faux-pas. If you focus merely on the quantity dial, you will grow a large and irrelevant network that will eventually not help achieve business and professional goals. If you work with quality being the only measure and don’t focus on the quantity, you will have a high-quality network with not enough critical mass to take advantage of network effects.
As a Sales leader, you want to achieve organizational sales targets. As a Sales professional, you want to achieve individual sales targets. Just as an increase in phone dials, conversations and face to face meetings increase the plausibility of achieving quota, so too, an increase in your 1st string connections and network activity (content sharing, engagement, nurturing etc.), increases the plausibility of achieving quota.
So, let’s dive one layer deeper into the Quantity and Quality variables.
QUANTITY: Grow a “LARGE” relevant network. Yes, focus on the size of your network. Start with the goal of 500 1st string connections – Achieve 500. Then move the goal post to 1,000 – Achieve 1,000. Then move the goal post to 1,500 – Achieve 1,500. You get the gist. Keep moving the goal post and keep striving to achieve the next level. Have a daily goal of a minimum number of outreaches. I send out a minimum of 10, highly qualified outreaches each weekday. Over 5 business days, I send out 50 invites. I then send out 50 over the weekend.
My LinkedIn outreach goal per week is to send 100 connection requests, without fail.
Please note that even though I am focused on sending out 100 connection requests a week, I will not send an invitation to someone I don’t think will add value to my network and vice versa. The outreach/acceptance must be targeted and in line with a network building strategy.
The core philosophy here is to ‘Develop a network of relevance, with consistency’.
As your network size grows, it will yield incrementally positive results. Think of your network to be subscribers to a Digital Newspaper. The more subscribers you have, the better the chances of you achieving your professional and business goals.
As you grow your network size, you will also see the benefit of network effects working in your favour. A network on a platform (such as LinkedIn) becomes more valuable as more users leverage (become part of) the network. For network effects to be achieved, a certain ‘critical mass’ must be reached. In my opinion, SBI’s “5,000 connections”, is this ‘critical mass’. I endorse this number. I have seen it work for me. Our Head of Customer Success, Joe Barnes has seen it work for him and we have seen this work for ex-colleagues and clients we have trained. Your network strength will prove to be a very strong source of value and competitive advantage.
The book “Platform Revolution” (Parker, Van Alstyne and Choudary) covers the theory of network effects with robust credibility. I have compared the very thorough research in the book to social media networking, particularly so on LinkedIn. There is science that underpins the performance increase that results from increasing 1st string connections.
Growing the number of 1st string connections through proactive outreach must be coupled with consistent sharing of value-added content. Every now and then, for select content, the principle of virality kicks in and that piece of content goes viral across your network. The analogy I share with professionals whom I mentor on Social Selling is that of a pinball machine.
In a pinball machine the moment you release the plunger (spring-loaded rod) to propel the ball into the playfield, the pins assist you to keep the ball in play. Similarly, the moment you release valuable content into a network, it bounces around your network. The number of first-string connections helps keep the (content) ball in play. The more relevant connections you have, the more the content stays in play. Some of the interaction is not as relevant as others. However, if you have a largely relevant network and the content that you are sharing is relevant too, the interaction will lead to opportunities. Those that advise otherwise or have not seen interaction lead to opportunity, either have a network that is not largely relevant or they are sharing content that is not valuable.
The benefit of the LinkedIn landscape is that this viral content bounces not just within your network’s pinball machine. It also bounces on various parallel pinball machines (networks of connections of connections), resulting in increased pins (connections) in your network.
Quantity Matters. Let no trainer or consultant tell you that a smaller network is the way to go. Increasing network size with relevant contacts is not a nice to do, it is a must do.
“Your network is your net worth” – Jill Rowley
“To be successful you have to have quantity of quality” – Mark Frauenfelder