I’ll admit it -- I love LinkedIn. It’s one of the few places online where I feel mostly shielded from unwanted interactions.
Ironically, most of us are on LinkedIn to make connections that will help us to advance the goals of our companies, and of course, to improve our own careers.
So here’s the catch: How can you achieve your own, admittedly self-interested objectives, without sending people communications they don’t want to receive? Welcome to InMails, the internal messages you can send to people on LinkedIn who are not directly connected to you (not yet anyway).
Why LinkedIn InMails Work
At first glance, an InMail might seem like any other message you can send to someone on social media, but here are four reasons it’s actually quite different.
- The sender gets context about the recipient. The more you know about your audience, the better you can target your communication for their needs. Using the information in a person’s profile enables you to craft a highly relevant and targeted InMail that will have a better chance of appealing to them.
- The sender gives the recipient context, too. When you contact someone, no matter how you do so, it’s important to convey credibility. When you reach out using InMail, you’re enabling your recipient to easily access more details about who you are by simply clicking on your LinkedIn profile. This puts them in control and enables them to get more information and decide if you’re worthy of a response.
- The sender is reaching out in a business context. When people are checking their InMail, they are usually wearing their business hat. This fact alone makes it a better environment to use for business-related messages than most social media channels. The person receiving your InMail already has an expectation that your message to them will be business-related in nature.
- InMails are scarce by design. Even with a paid LinkedIn account, users cannot send InMails willy-nilly -- each user gets a specific number of InMails to use per month. This limited quantity has two benefits. First, the recipient takes the message more seriously because they know they were likely hand-selected instead of mass-mailed. Second, the sender will be more deliberate about who they send messages to, which will inherently boost message quality.
Notice a theme here? LinkedIn InMails are great because of the built-in advantages of context and scarcity, which improves and enhances communication in general, and certainly in business settings.
Can a Simple Little InMail Really Help Me?
Yes, it can. I’ve used InMails for various purposes, and can attest that they deliver powerful results when used the right way. Here are three types of InMails you should know about, and use.
1) The “Come Work With Us” InMail
Working with recruiters can be frustrating for many businesses. Not only does your company have to fork out a lot of money for recruiting services, but I’ve found that recruiters can sometimes unintentionally muddy communication between the hiring manager and the candidate. There are good headhunters out there, but in general, I’ve always had better luck finding candidates who come to me through referrals from people within my own network.
When I am looking to fill job openings, I often go onto LinkedIn to search for candidates through my connections. A few months ago, when I was trying to find someone to help me with SEO, I did a search for candidates using the “Advanced Search” feature, looking for people who lived within a drivable radius of the office, and typing in key skills I felt were important, such as “white hat” and “content strategy.” Lo and behold, I came across a guy who seemed to have the perfect profile.
Here is the InMail I sent to him:
Here are a few pointers you can take away from this InMail:
- Keep it brief. My InMail was only six sentences long. Get to the point quickly and tell the recipient why you are reaching out to them, ideally in the very first line of the message. Remember, they are probably reading the InMail on their phone and might not ever open it again. A short message makes it easy for the other person to respond to you, also with a short reply.
- Emphasize common ground. Establish a shared purpose with your recipient -- one that is genuine, not fake. I could tell from the content on the candidate’s profile that he was a true believer in ethical SEO techniques, which is very important to me, too. I also mentioned his background in linguistics, because I thought this was another sign of potential synergy.
- Lead with them, not you. Notice that the entire first paragraph, and most of the message in the example above, is all about the recipient. There was only one sentence out of six where I mentioned the company, and even then, it was to convey the benefits we could offer to the candidate.
- Make it highly personalized. Yes, my reference to candy and the Simpsons might have been a little, err, corny, but I happen to like both, and I wanted to connect in a more personal way with someone who seemed like a fun, cool person to work with. That can set the tone for a joyful working relationship in the future. It’s fine to go there, as long as you don’t sound like a stalker or pretend to be something you’re not.
So, did it work? InMail success! The candidate actually gave me props on the creativity of the outreach. Sadly, he didn’t want to make a career move just yet, so my dreams of debating the merits of the rel=canonical tag while munching on candy corn to a Simpsons soundtrack were dashed. However, my belief in the power of InMails was justly reinforced, because he referred me to some other candidates.
2) The “Crazy Big Ask” InMail
This type of InMail is one you’ll have to use sparingly. I’ll admit, before I tried it, even I had never considered using an InMail to request something really big and audacious. Glad I tried, because it resulted in a book deal with a major publisher.
But lest this sound a little too easy, first, a bit of background.
I had an idea for a book I had been pitching through an agent to no avail. Frustrated, I ended the agent-author relationship. Then one evening, I wondered if I might have better luck by reaching out to an editor to make my case directly.
I began searching for editors at major publishing houses, again using Advanced Search on LinkedIn. After locating each editor’s profile on LinkedIn, I also researched them online to learn more. What kinds of books did they publish? Were they on Twitter? What did others say about them? Did they have a sense of humor? (I didn’t want an editor who was too stodgy or old-school. Writing a book is a big commitment, and I wanted it to be fun.)
After finding an editor who fit the bill, I sent her this four-sentence InMail:
Wordsmiths: How Translators Are Changing Civilization
April 27, 2011, 10:09 PM
I write on language issues for the Huffington Post and for a popular blog on translation with more than 30,000 subscribers. My latest book, Wordsmiths, will show how translators are helping humanity move from the "information age" to the "information transformation age." Much like blacksmiths enabled the Industrial Revolution, wordsmiths are creating a new kind of revolution. Do you think the book might be a good fit for you? I'm happy to share more details.
She replied and said she would love to learn more and provided me with her email address, that signal in business networking that says, “Let’s take this to the next level.” Ding-ding-ding! I gave her a longer pitch via email, and from there she requested a proposal. The rest is history.
When making a “crazy big ask,” something you dream of but probably don’t really expect to become a reality, here are some things you can borrow from my experience:
- Choose the recipient with great care. If I had sent an InMail to every editor I could find on LinkedIn, I would not have had the same success. Not only that, but LinkedIn would have locked my account for spamming people. Don’t make the mistake of sending out large volumes of InMails thinking that it will boost your chance of success. Quality trumps quantity here. I hand-picked the recipients based not just on their title and company, but on their online personality.
- Show the value. Not many publishers will take an author seriously unless they have credibility and a platform of readers. I made the value clear to Marian from the start. Before you write your InMail, ask yourself: What does the other person need that I can offer? How are they compensated? What will get them promoted? How can I help them succeed at their job?
- Make it memorable. Editors get pitched all the time, as do most people that you’d want to contact to achieve a big, wild dream. I had to appeal to her desire as an editor to work on a project that is unique and interesting. “What do translators and blacksmiths have in common?” Probably not the same pitch she hears every day.
- Don’t be daunted. It can be scary to send an InMail to a powerful person, but remember, they probably have more in common with you than you realize. Take a cue from writers or salespeople. Those of us who’ve worked in these professions have learned not to take rejection personally. So long as you are authentic in your outreach, there is no reason to feel embarrassed, no matter how famous or important the recipient may seem to you. Be the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.
3) The “Let Me Offer You Some Specialized Help” InMail
This is my favorite type of LinkedIn InMail, and the one I send most frequently. If there’s a connection or influencer I have my eye on, I simply reach out to offer them something I am uniquely prepared to help them with. In marketing terms, this might be considered your “first touch,” in which you’re simply making them aware you exist along with the “brand attributes” they should associate with you as a person. And, as with everything in marketing and sales, it’s always important to include an offer to lead them to the next step.
What should you offer? I generally advise against using an InMail to offer people giveaway items or “free gifts,” because this can come across as too brash. (Exceptions: Candy corn and Simpsons-related items.) The best offers consist of things that they can’t easily get anywhere else, such as your time and expertise.
Also, don’t forget to mention in your InMail that you’re willing to help other people in their company, or that you’d like to contribute to causes they care about or volunteer for. This helps the other person view you as not only someone who is willing to serve, but who really cares about the greater good of that person’s team, business, and the other things that motivate them in work, and in life.
Here is an example of a “helpful” InMail that I sent to connect with a fellow marketer:
Here are some things to take away from this InMail example:
- Summarize in the subject line. To get a busy person to open your InMail, give it a subject line that clearly conveys what you have to offer. My subject line for Joe was simple: “In case you ever need a global content SME … ” Whatever you do, don’t use the dreaded guilt-inducing subject line, such as “Trying to get in touch with you again.” Making the recipient feel like they owe you something is definitely not a good way to start a relationship.
- Read their profile. All of it. I had no idea that Joe majored in Spanish until I got to the very bottom of his profile on LinkedIn. How often have you stopped reading a profile after scanning the Work Experience section? If you’re crafting a targeted message for an InMail, make use of those little glimmers on a profile that give you a connection to someone. This shows that you care more about them as people than just about where they happen to currently work. That makes you more credible and likely to get a response.
- Build on other interactions. I had mentioned Joe in a tweet the week before sending the InMail, when quotes from both of us were featured on a calendar published by the American Marketing Association (AMA). He responded to me on Twitter, so I wanted to build on that interaction further by extending it into another social channel where I would have a few more characters available. Whenever someone connects with you in some other way -- via phone, in person, or online -- use this opportunity to connect with them via LinkedIn right away, while you’re still fresh in their mind.
- Show your personality. I knew that Joe got a kick out of the fact that the AMA calendar had spelled his name wrong (hey, we’re not judging … everyone is allowed a typo now and then). So, I joked about it with him again in my InMail, as I was pretty sure he’d remember it. Don’t be afraid to show the other person who you really are and display a tasteful sense of humor, even if you can be a bit of a cheeseball at times (guilty as charged).
- Take a real interest in their work. Be careful not to kiss up to the recipient of your InMail or praise them in a way that’s artificial. However, a genuine compliment never hurts. In this case, simply mentioning the recent post that Joe’s team produced made it clear to him that I follow and appreciate the work he and his team are doing. I didn’t have to get all schmoozy-woozy.
“And to Think It All Started With an InMail … ”
You never know where an attempt to build a relationship will lead, but an InMail is often a great first step. Sometimes, the best results come from doing something so simple that it’s easy to overlook: genuinely taking an interest in others and reaching out to help them.
No matter how complex they may seem, business relationships are ultimately built on relationships between individuals. So, simply focus on how you can offer something of genuine value to the person you’d like to connect with. Do that one simple thing, and whether your outreach takes place via a LinkedIn InMail or some other channel, you’ll see results come back to you that are far better than you probably ever expected.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2015 and has been updated for accuracy and freshness.