This is the subhead for the blog post

This post is not intended as a self-congratulatory brag-fest, though I could see how one could draw that conclusion after reading the title. In fact, I think you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that my ‘success’ was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time, as opposed to having some highly-evolved networking skills. My purpose here is to help my readers understand how I capitalized on an opportunity and why I think there is value in doing so.

Step One: Recognizing a First-Mover Advantage

Back in mid-February I logged on to LinkedIn and saw a message inviting users to create networking groups. It struck me at the time that this little message could actually carry a lot of weight for those who quickly founded groups on the system. I equated it to buying a domain name in 1996 or starting a blog in 2003 – in both cases, you didn’t necessarily have to be brilliant, you just had to be at the right place at the right time to profit from a new ecosystem.

My theory with LinkedIn groups went something like this: if I founded a few groups, and LinkedIn group subsequently became popular, I could basically connect my personal brand identity with the success of my groups. As people applied to the group, they would see me as the owner, their acceptance would be based on my discretion, and I would receive de facto status as a leader in the respective field on which the group was focused.

So, with that theory in mind, I created three LinkedIn groups – the Online Lead Generation group, the Exteractive group (ex-Adteractive employees), and SF SEM. My applications were quickly accepted – indeed, I’m not actually sure anyone reviewed them in the first place, and my next objective was to set in motion and plan to quickly and smartly grow each group. As with first-mover bloggers, my theory here was that you could establish legitimacy simply by getting a lot of people to ‘follow’ you – in this case to join. I created a list of all the people I knew on LinkedIn who could be relevant for one or more of these groups, and sent out invites.

Step Two: Create Virality

For the online lead gen group, I sent out about 80 invites, largely to former colleagues from Adteractive. About 30 of them immediately accepted. Each time one accepted, LinkedIn displayed a notification on their connections’ homepages noting that they had joined the group. This spawned ‘me too’ applications and in a few days the group had grown from 30 members to a couple of hundred.

Indeed, group applications quickly became highly viral. As people logged in to LinkedIn and often saw four or five of their friends joining the group on the same day, the number of applications began to increase almost exponentially. At first I received only a dozen applications a week, but in less than a month I was getting about 30 a week, and these days the number of applications is around 150 a week.

The amazing thing about this growth – especially in the beginning – was that there was very little value in joining the group. Your membership basically entitled you to a group logo in your profile, and the right to invite someone to connect to you because you were in the same group. Moreover, none of these ‘benefits’ (or lack thereof) were explained to anyone on LinkedIn, which meant that people just applied on the sole basis of seeing other people they trusted join. Truly an example of lemmings rushing to the sea!

Step Three: Prevent Group Dilution

One of the main problems I’ve seen with social media is that there are always people who either innocently misunderstand or purposely abuse it. For example, I created a MySpace page a while back and in a matter of days received hundreds of friend requests from Nigerian spammers, porn sites, and other hucksters. On LinkedIn, I frequently get invitations to connect from totally random people with whom I have nothing in common.

As I started to review applications for the lead gen group, I saw this same problem occurring. Mainly, it turns out that there were thousands of people who decided that the best way to network on LinkedIn was to join as many groups as possible. As I noted in the past, I got applications from folks who had already joined more than 1500 separate groups. Indeed, a LinkedIn product manager told me that these people had actually started to cause server load problems, because each time their profile was served, LinkedIn had to serve 1500 images as well.

The point is, the success of a networking group is a combination of quantity and quality (not unlike the success of a search engine ad network, now that I think of it), so I became pretty aggressive at weeding out applicants who clearly had no interest in lead gen and just wanted to be a group-joiner.

Step Four: Maintain Quality

About a month ago, LinkedIn introduced some much-needed new features to their groups, most notably group discussion boards. This enables group members to post questions and pitches for other members to review and respond to. For lead gen, this is a particularly valuable feature, because lead gen is all about finding new lead sources for buyers and new lead buyers for sellers.

An unintended consequence of the discussion board was that it created a lot of spam postings. But these spam postings also helped me to identify group members who has escaped my initial review and were clearly just group-joiners. To be fair, however, I gave everyone advance notice of my intent to remove members who abused the discussion board. Here’s a typical warning posting I placed on the discussion board:

Hi, please keep your posts focused on lead generation. DO NOT post any of the following – if you spam this board you risk getting your membership in the group revoked:

1. “Business opportunity” spam – “I found a great web site called www.getrichonline.com – go check it out.”

2. Untargeted requests to link-in. “I accept all lin

ked in invitations.”

3. Non-lead gen job postings. “I am looking for candidates in all fields!”

4. Repeating the same posting every week. “My company does X – please contact me.”

5. Untargeted business development emails: “I do Web site development. Call me for a quote.”

Generally speaking I am trying to check this board at least a few times a week – if you post something that seems to be an innocent misunderstanding of the rules, I’ll delete the discussion. If you post another bad post, I’ll remove you from the group. Complete spam postings will result in immediate removal.

I would like to make this discussion board a truly valuable place for people interested in lead gen to interact and share ideas – so please keep posting . . . about lead gen!

Discussion board spammers, it turns out, generally don’t read the discussion boards to which they spam. So numerous spammers just continued to spam away and over a few weeks, I removed another 20 people from the group.

Step Five: Create Offline Opportunities

Online networking groups are easy to join but also easy to ignore. The best networking always occurs in person. To that end, my last step in making this group powerful was to try to get group members together . . . in person. Together with my fellow lead-gen group organizer, Jay Weintraub, we organized a lead gen mixer in San Francisco a few months ago. The results were encouraging – about 125 members of the group showed up, we got some sponsors to subsidize the event, and I got reports back from several attendees that some big biz dev deals came out of the meet-up. We’ll be doing at least one more meet-up in the next few months.

Conclusion

As I said in the intro, most of my ‘success’ here is really attributable to creating a group very early in the LinkedIn ecosystem. If I’ve learned anything from blogs, Twitter, FaceBook apps and other social media innovations, first-mover advantage often trumps actual knowledge or expertise. So I guess if I am to pat myself on the back for anything here, it’s recognizing the unfair advantage you currently get for being first in social media.

The conclusion you should therefore draw from all of this is that you too can take advantage of first-mover opportunities when you see them. Rather than trying to grow a Twitter following at this late stage in the game, the best strategy is to wait for the next early-stage social media innovation and establish your presence as quickly as possible. As Al and Laura Reis said in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, if you can’t be number one in a category, create a category you can be number one in.” Why bother earning social media status if all you need to do is show up?