A Key Professional Networking Question: Quality or Quantity?

One of the discussions I’ve been watching with great interest in the greater LinkedIn community and with professional networking sites in general is whether it’s a better strategy to have a small number of quality connections, or a large number of relevant but varied connections.
This discussion is so common, in fact, that some people have started to abbreviate it as QvQ.
But what are the pros and cons of each strategy? Let’s have a look…
First off, like much else in life, the connect / don’t connect decision is one that you have to consider anew for each potential professional connection, regardless of your individual connection criteria. Specifically, even if you decided that you’d only link to very high quality people (that is, people who you have know for at least X years, or worked with on at least Y projects) you’re still placing yourself on a continuum of networking connection restrictions where one extreme is that you won’t connect to anyone and the diametric opposite extreme is that you’ll connect to everyone, their Mom and their dog.

Clearly both of those are pointless strategies, the former because you quite literally don’t have a network at all if you only have a single node, you. It’s the “no man is an island” revisited for the digital age. The latter strategy doesn’t work either because if you have no method of screening potential contacts then you might as well pick up a phone book or randomly dial your telephone hoping to make a good connection.
To understand the relative value of different points on the continuum, then, I think it’s important to understand why you’re networking in the first place. For consultants, it’s typically to find peers with whom to partner and clients to pitch. For a recruiter, it’s to find candidates for positions (and a surprising number of people on sites like LinkedIn are professional recruiters, an important realization if you’re looking for a job right now). For an employee of a typical medium company, it’s most likely peers and possible outsource candidates. Different people, different quality criteria for their connection screen. That makes sense.
And then there are what I call the super-connectors, people who view their Rolodex, their Address Book, their contact list as a veritable jewel unto itself. For those people, more is always merrier and they’ll only very rarely – if ever – reject a connection request, even if from someone in a completely different industry, profession or country.
On most networking sites, however, there are alternatives to either being out of touch or being connected or “linked” directly.
On LinkedIn, you can contact someone through your shared network of colleagues without requesting a specific link between the two of you, for example. LinkedIn’s Konstantin Guericke explains it this way: “The intent is definitely to use contact requests to meet new people and for invitations [to connect permanently] to be reserved for people who know you well.”
So there’s a third dimension here: if you can network effectively with others and, of course, they can find you and communicate with you about possible opportunities without a direct connection, then screening your possible direct links more stringently doesn’t have the same penalty or cost that some super-connectors suggest.
One question worth considering in this regard is “Have you met everyone on your direct connections list?” Well, this is the digital age, so let’s amend that slightly:
Have you either met or personally corresponded with everyone on your direct connections list?
Note that I’m not saying what your answer should be. If you’re someone who believes in quantity over quality of connections, then your answer is more likely to be that I’m asking the wrong question! The question I think they’d ask is:
Might I in the future want to meet or personally correspond with everyone on my list?
My personal opinion is that being somewhere in the middle of this continuum is the optimal place to be for almost all networking professionals. I only connect with people I know, people I’ve communicated with professionally on more than one occasion, people I’ve worked with, or, on occasion, someone who I don’t yet know, but can see from their profile that we share a core professional interest.
I have a fine example of this from just a few days ago. I need to get some back issues of Internet World Magazine from the mid-90’s and had exhausted my regular network. I went on to LinkedIn, searched for the magazine name as a keyword, found a dozen or so matches, then used our shared networks to email contact requests, with the exact details of what I sought.
Within 24 hours, I was in direct communication with someone who worked at the magazine during the years in question and has generously offered to send me the issues I need for my research. I didn’t try to connect to him, nor him to me, however, because there’s no logic to it: I needed help, I used the networking tool to communicate with someone who could help me, he contacted me back, and now the transaction is complete.
I know others who are much more strict about their professional online networking too, where they only link to colleagues that they’ve worked with on specific jobs. Their networks are small and most of these networkers tend not to tap their network anyway.
What’s your take? If you use any professional networking sites like LinkedIn, are you a “quality” or “quantity” linker, and why?

8 comments on “A Key Professional Networking Question: Quality or Quantity?

  1. Dave, thanks for this post – makes me think and need to put a few words down on this.
    My nutshell…
    I haven’t really used LN or any other scn’s actively but have done the basics. In my understanding and what I got out of your article there are just a couple of simple reasons:
    1. In life your contacts and their nature vary which also will happen in course of time > evolution.
    2. Systems and their developers don’t see the true nature, need and potential of life’s from Globalization to Localization and vice versa.
    In practise this means that some of one’s contacts are for business, some for private, some are active and some are for ‘stock’ by being inactive for time being.
    Part of the reply to this QvQ discussion is laid out by the developers of the systems and now I am not saying this is bad for most of the people, as it’s all dependant on the purpose of networking.
    Most of today’s scn’s don’t allow one to categorise the contacts with in the system, nor does it allow deletion or moving to ‘inactive’. These are things which salesmen, who we all are at the end of the day, do on day-to-day basis to preserve their tomorrow. The answer why the above things are not taken on board in scn’s is that in most cases quantity overrides the Quality and that the value of the service most often comes from the prior.
    Then the other issue, global2local2global – see Google and others. Remember Barnevik’s slogan “think global, act local”. From early stages on most of the ‘sophisticated’ scn’s are laid out to be too complex to be local, their primary target is global, and in english. Why? Because of the vast coverage of the language (qty).
    Now I may be little piggy here but that’s me;-)
    Given the thought for the above the killer app with-in the variation of scn’s would be a system which combines the two, (plus a few other important features). This would result hopefully easy thus integrated means to take the socialisation in inetworks to same level as they would go in life. Enabling the control of Quality over quantity.

  2. Great article, Dave
    I have a profile on Linked In, although I haven’t yet taken the time to make many connections or do much with it. It’s on my to-do list.
    I think one thing to take into consideration here is how other people might tout inbound links from me. For instance, almost as soon as I joined Linked In I received several “connect to me” requests from strangers who, as it turned out, viewed inbound links as a kind of recommendation. I didn’t want to be recommending professionals when I knew nothing about their work, strengths, and weaknesses.
    I like the way you view Linked In connections as potentially desirable connections, but I’ll still have to wrestle with how others might be touting links from me. What’s your take on that?
    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, Contentious

  3. Nice (non judgmental) post.
    I find that quality vs quantity a bad way to think of it.
    Instead, consider quality metrics, and I think you hit on this in this post.
    First ask how many hours per month you are willing to do online networking.
    Then ask yourself, in the x hours I am willing to do online networking, I will spend it
    a) Strengthening my already strong existing network
    b) Strengthening my weaker contacts
    c) Meeting new people and exploring new possibilities
    d) All of the above
    If you say D, and your hours are more than 20 or so a month, you can be a successful super connector. It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of desire and commitment.

  4. Dave,
    I belong to the http://www.soflow.com network, and I have found that quality is key to this group. They impressed me so much, I started my own network within the network called Blog Buzz. I have met some very good people, and have started some great dialogues with some very clever minds within the marketing and advertising sectors.

  5. I believe there is an interesting intersection between social networking and project workspace and webapplications.
    I believe that the social networking part (finding new contacts), will increasingly take part, outside closed networks (now that everyone is having a blog).
    We then need tools (not only e-mail) to work/discuss/collaborate with our contacts.

  6. Personally, I found Linkedin cumbersome, and though it does a great job of keeping track of everyone I already know, it doesn’t really seem to help in the “new networking” situation.
    When I think of networking, I think of finding new people with whom to connect, people that might have something I need or want, or vice versa.
    Quite frankly, I am tempted to put together my own networking website designed at bringing together people who do not now know each other, but could benefit from the relationship (strictly professional, not a dating site or something). I would be curious to know what others would like in a networking site.

  7. Thanks for the great post Dave. I honestly agree with Kelly Knight. I have participated in, subscribed to, and networked both in person and on line, and find if you are not part of the in group on line, then you cannot make much headway making contacts. But I am open to learning and growing my network, as well as gaining contacts to grow my business.

  8. Funny, I just got through writing a draft of an opinion piece covering this very topic. Much of what you have indicated here is in line with the thoughts I have gathered from many of my peers.
    The question I didn’t think to address? How do you identify the right online networking tool/group for “you”? Any thoughts?
    (Incidentally, I am a new Linkedin member myself. Cultivating my contact list with quality in mind is definately on my to-do list.)
    Thanks for the post! – Vicki

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