I’ve been thinking a great deal about Linkedin connections lately – LinkedIn connections, in general, and my personal LinkedIn connections, in particular. My 5,000+ connections come from various points: stages of my career, my education and simply past events or acquaintances.

And while these contacts have certainly been a great resource and sales tool in my repertoire, I don’t really spend too much time actually connecting with my LinkedIn contacts — an unfortunate waste of potentially valuable relationships.

The Value of the LinkedIn Network

Most only consider LinkedIn connections when looking to secure their next job or progress in their career. And although LinkedIn is definitely useful for those reasons, its professional networks can accomplish and enable so much more. Here are just a few of the ways your LinkedIn network offers a wealth of value:

•         Deepening Your Connections: Connecting on LinkedIn doesn’t necessarily imply or help forge a personal connection. The platform simply provides a means of creating relationships with acquaintances and colleagues. Someone you barely know can become a close personal friend or a partner for your next business endeavor, but you’ve got to extend yourself and deepen the surface connections you make.

•         Broadening Your Network: A LinkedIn network is much more sophisticated than just direct connections on the platform. My first-level connections give me access to their first-level connections, expanding my networking potential and the wealth of resources I can reach out to on LinkedIn. It’s important to remember this tool exists and capitalize on it.

Making Connections Real

Of course, the key to benefiting from the means of connection that LinkedIn offers lies in diving deeper than surface level. This is where I have been focusing my attention – establishing a more authentic personal and professional network on LinkedIn.

My mission to connect started with defining my goal: What did making a connection mean to me? A lunch? A call? A few emails back and forth? Meeting up at an event? I defined an actual connection as something between a phone call and lunch. The next step is answering the following problem question: For busy connections with limited time to spare, what irrefutable value can I offer, that will make them want to connect?

Based on my experience, I’ve come up with the following principles to guide my pursuit of turning LinkedIn connections into more authentic, real-life connections:

Ask Politely

How I frame my initial outreach will set the stage for all future interactions. Keeping this in mind, I send a polite email informing my contact that I’d like to build beyond the LinkedIn connection stage. I ask them if they’re on the same page and when they have time to chat, being respectful of their time and their busy schedules.

Talk About Connecting

Using words like “connect” or event “talk” and “chat” has been shown to increase follow-up rates. By using these terms, I define my purpose and have a better chance of building on my connections.

Do My Homework

I take the time to do just a little bit of homework on my connection before any conversations begin Nothing too in-depth, but enough that I will be prepared to ask them relevant questions about their lives and work that go beyond the usual formalities.

Focus on Shared Experiences

That initial research gives me the opportunity to discover experiences, connections and communities that we have in common. These similarities not only provide discussion topics, but also give me a better chance of getting a response. Mentioning a LinkedIn group in common, for example, ensures a 21% greater likelihood of a reply.

My hope is that this post will encourage my LinkedIn contacts, as well as others who read it, to take similar steps. I would love to see some of these shared connections reach out and begin to form deeper relationships themselves.

There’s more to each LinkedIn contact than a name, job title and potential lead for new opportunities. I hope that my efforts to engage better, and more deeply, with my connections will encourage others to do the same.