If you’re using LinkedIn like just another one of your social media outlets, you’re doing it all wrong. Your ability to use LinkedIn appropriately as a self-marketing tool is the difference between using LinkedIn to make meaningful career connections and wasting your time trying. Understanding what’s “appropriate” on LinkedIn can be more complicated than it sounds. There’s a big difference between building a private persona (like you would on Instagram) and building a professional profile, and for many people, these lines are blurred.

Navigating LinkedIn successfully comes down to recognizing LinkedIn for what it is: an ongoing online networking extravaganza. Just like an awkward networking event, everyone on LinkedIn is there for the same things—to make connections and boost their career. The advantage of LinkedIn is that you can curate how you come across to others strategically from the comfort of your own home. That being said, we’ve gathered up some parameters to help you stay in-bounds professionally and build the network of your dreams. Thinking of LinkedIn as a networking event helps you to:

1.Make meaningful connections. Many people try to get to the coveted “500 connections” on LinkedIn, without considering the quality of connections it took to get there. If you’re taking a quantity over quality approach, it’s essentially like going to a networking event, throwing your business cards at the attendees, and then storming out. Maybe one person will pick up your business card and contact you, but most people will simply ignore you. The same is true of LinkedIn. If you’re sending generic “let’s connect” messages to hundreds of random strangers, you might get some bites, but they won’t be meaningful ones. Taking the time to find common ground and make a proper introduction takes more work, but will lead to a better first impression and, ultimately, a stronger professional LinkedIn relationship that you can leverage later.

2. Get outside your comfort zone. You wouldn’t go to a networking event and only hang out with the people you already know. You’d be wasting your time. The same is true if you’re only using LinkedIn to connect with people already inside your network. To network with people outside of your existing circle, all you need to do is find a common thread. Having mutual connections or interests builds credibility, so a good place to start is to ask your existing connections on LinkedIn if they know people in your field that they’d be willing to “introduce” you to via LinkedIn. People from your circle wouldn’t hesitate to introduce you to a colleague at a networking event, so you shouldn’t feel weird about asking them to do the same on LinkedIn.

You can also build your LinkedIn network by joining LinkedIn interest groups. Joining a group and being an active participant can help increase your visibility and lead to meaningful connections over time. You might not have the luxury of a personal introduction here, but instead of a mutual connection, here you’re leveraging your shared interest. It’s like attending a networking event specifically for (insert your field here). You know you’ll have at least one thing in common, so when you “approach” someone from that group via a message, make sure to reference that mutual interest and make sure they know why you’d like to connect. Chances are, they too will see the advantage of making the connection because of your shared interest.  

3. Think of your appearance from an outside perspective. Showing up at a LinkedIn event with headphones in or in your “Saturday grocery shopping clothes” would be a bit strange, but you wouldn’t believe how many LinkedIn profile pictures I’ve seen where this the case. You may never meet some of the people you talk to on LinkedIn, which means your profile is usually the first and only impression you get to make. Take a look at your profile from a hiring manager’s perspective. Is that awkward selfie the first thing you want them to see? What about that sloppy job entry you haven’t touched since college? Or better yet, have a friend take a look and see what their first impression of your profile is. Remember: your profile is representing you to potential employers and future colleagues, so it’s worth doing some investigation into what works on your profile and what doesn’t.

4. Look like an expert in your field. If you met a potential employer at a networking event and they asked you what you were currently working on, you wouldn’t hesitate to tell them the projects or research you’re a part of. When it comes to your LinkedIn profile, you can make sure everyone who’s connected with you sees you as a credible contributor to your field by sharing meaningful articles, or even writing and sharing your own blog post. Maintaining an active profile is an easy way to make your profile stand out from others who create their LinkedIn profiles and never touch them again. Even five minutes spent per day sharing content can increase your visibility significantly.

5. Get a job! At some point or another, you’ll likely want to leverage some of your connections to land a job. Ideally, you should attend networking events even when you’re not looking so that you have some go-to contacts when you are. Otherwise, you’ll be frantically looking for networking opportunities to build these contacts ASAP, and often come across as desperate or needy in your attempt to do so. It’s the same on LinkedIn. Don’t wait until you’re desperate to start a “networking plan” on LinkedIn. Spend a little time every week looking through suggested contacts, scanning interest groups for potential contacts, and messaging existing ones. You’ll thank yourself later.

If you’re hiding behind a LinkedIn profile that’s less than ideal, Executive Drafts offers LinkedIn optimization services and can help you build a profile that will help you network confidently while giving future employers a strong first impression of who you are as a professional.