It's an invitation to connect on LinkedIn, the professional networking site. But it's from someone you don't know, or someone whose name you might have heard at a networking event. Did you go to college with this person? Maybe you bumped into this person at Starbucks and swapped business cards. No matter. The point here is you have an invitation, and you don't know what to do with it.
These invitations can be generated in a few different ways. Someone might have been browsing your profile and clicked "Connect." Often, I get these emails when someone has had LinkedIn search their address book and checks the options to mass invite every email address they have. I don't recommend doing this. It's not really spam, but it feels like spam to the person who receives it. This method doesn't give you an option to enter a customized message, which is the gold standard of LinkedIn requests.
The options for responding to a LinkedIn request are: Accept, Ignore, and Mark as Spam.
So how do you decide what to do?
Scenario 1: You think you know who the person is, but you're not sure.
Check out their profile. Look for things you have in common, such as skills, location, or schools. That should be enough to jog you memory so you can make an informed decision.
Scenario 2: You don't know who the person is, but s/he is someone you might like to connect with.
You're in online marketing, and someone from an online marketing firm that you'd like to work for sends an invitation. Go ahead an accept, but make sure to follow up with a note within the next day. Your note should be clear and concise. Here's a sample:
Thanks so much for reaching out over LinkedIn. I notice from your profile that you work at Digital Marketing Professionals. I work in digital marketing, and I would love to hear more about your role at DMP, as I am very interested in the company. Would you have time to chat by phone next week? You can reach me directly at email@example.com or (617) 555-1234.
After that, the ball is on the requestor's court to respond.
Scenario 3: You don't know who the person is, and you're not sure if you want to connect.
You got a request, you checked out the person's profile, and you're on the fence about whether connecting would be useful. Without accepting the request (you'll need to go into your LinkedIn inbox to do this), send the person a quick note:
I don't think we've met. Can you tell me a little bit about why you would like to connect?
This gives the person an option to explain that they also went to your alma mater and wanted to meet fellow Electrical Engineering majors, or that they are a long time fan of your blog. If they don't respond, it's safe to assume that they aren't serious about connecting.
Scenario 4: You know the person, but you don't know if you want to connect.
True story: A woman getting divorced found a great lawyer through word-of-mouth recommendations. The divorce proceedings went well (as well as any divorce goes), but toward the end of the process, the lawyer made a pass at her. She made it clear she wasn't interested, and they completed their business. Now, some time later, the lawyer invited her to join his LinkedIn network. Her dilemma was that he was a good lawyer in court, but he wasn't a very sensitive person, or the most professional.
The answer to this one is:
Ask yourself two questions. Would you recommend this person for a job? This would include everything "should I hire this person to paint my house, I hear he painted your house last year," to "Peggy is a finalist for the role of VP of Sales in our firm. What do you think of her work?"
Then ask, "Would this person recommend me for a job?" This would include being comfortable enough to ask, "Hugh, can I put you down as a reference on my job application?" as well as being reasonably certain that if a future hiring manager called Hugh, he would say you were the right person for the job and be able to enumerate your strengths.
If the answer to either question is no, I don't recommend connecting. Some people are just out to collect connections the way other people collect stamps or camel figurines--just to see how many they can get. There's a danger in doing that. People actually use LinkedIn to augment real-life networking. If you have 5,000 connections but can't say anything about more than 20 of them, this signals that your network's value is low, and that your ability to create a network is similarly low.
I have read that people should aim to have 500 or more LinkedIn connections in order to be perceived as "professional" or "good at networking," or whatever. This is silly. Connect with the people you know and trust, with people that you would be able to refer work to, with people you have worked with. Connect with people you talk to/collaborate with in an online-only relationship. Beware of the LION (LinkedIn Open Networker)--this person is out to collect scalps.