I spend a lot of time teaching job seekers how to make new connections on LinkedIn. Constantly meeting new people and growing your professional network is crucial to uncovering job leads and building a successful and lasting career. But today we’re going to talk about another important piece of networking that is often neglected: maintaining your connections once you have them. As the old song says, “Make new friends, but keep the old….”

You can’t build up a new network every time you look for a job or have a career need; think of your longer-term connections as a deep bench of teammates that – as long as you stay connected – will be your supporters for years to come.

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Take my friend Jane, who is a master of keeping in touch over time. She is great at forwarding interesting articles, sending congratulations messages when people have good news and attending industry events where she’s likely to run into long-time connections. Recently Jane found herself in a job search and noticed on the LinkedIn Company Page of her dream employer that David, a former colleague from a decade earlier, currently worked at that company. Because she had kept in touch periodically over the years, Jane felt comfortable reaching out to David asking for help and he was delighted to introduce her to the hiring manager at his company.

Do you struggle with keeping in touch over time? Here are answers to three common questions about maintaining a strong long-term network on LinkedIn:

1. How do you reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time?

I admit it can be a bit awkward to send a LinkedIn connection request or InMail to a former colleague, classmate or client seemingly out of the blue. But you should do it anyway. Here are two reasons why: First, social media is still a new enough communication channel that people aren’t shocked to be contacted by an old friend who has come across their profile. Second, it’s so important to your job search and career prospects to maintain a strong network that it’s worth a bit of potential awkwardness.

That said, you can lessen the potential weirdness of the situation by writing a great “get back in touch” message. Here are the three elements of such a message: 1) Explain how you “rediscovered” the person, 2) Find something relevant to talk about by reviewing the person’s LinkedIn profile (to show that you have a genuine interest in the person and are a mutually beneficial networker, and 3) Tell them a bit about what you’re doing and, ideally, suggest a follow-up conversation during which you can talk about your job search and offer to help your contact with his or her needs. Just remember that this LinkedIn message is a friendly networking outreach, not the time to ask for a job. Here is an example:

Hi Connie,

It’s been a long time since our days at Acme — I hope all is well! I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you’ve been writing some blog posts on industry news. I checked out your latest piece on mobile marketing and really enjoyed it. Since leaving Acme, I’ve made a career switch and am currently exploring opportunities in corporate communications, mostly at smaller firms. Would you have some time in the next few weeks to catch up by phone? It would be nice to reconnect and I’d love to ask your advice on my job search.

All the best,

Lindsey

2. How do you keep in touch with someone when you don’t have an immediate need or any real “news” to share?

The best way to keep in touch with someone when you don’t have an immediate need or current news is by giving something to that person, such as information he or she would enjoy, congratulations on a new position or a comment on a discussion or status update that person has posted. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman calls this doing “small goods,” and it’s one of the best uses of the site.

LinkedIn provides some great ways to spark this type of outreach. First, there is the LinkedIn feed on LinkedIn.com. Here, you can see a stream of what your LinkedIn connections are sharing in their updates and find reasons to reach out. By simply liking an article someone posts, they’ll get a notification which will then keep you on that person’s radar screen. If you’d like to engage the person in a conversation, then use their status update as a reason to reach out with a LinkedIn message. Again, try to offer something of value to your contact. Here is an example:

Ari,

I just saw the article you posted about workplace wellness. I was really interested in the section on small businesses. I actually came across an article recently on small business health programs that I thought would interest you – hope you find it valuable.

Hope all is well – feel free to reach out if you ever need anything!

Best wishes,

Lindsey

Of course, you should also post your own updates so that your connections have a way to keep in touch with you as well. Just be sure to respond to everyone who makes an effort to reach out, to show your gratitude and maintain the relationships.

The new LinkedIn Contacts also provides reasons to reach out. Contacts brings together your address books, emails and calendars and will alert you on your connections’ job changes and birthdays. You can also use Contacts to set reminders to follow up. For instance, when someone accepts your connection request, you can set a reminder to reach out to that person in one month to say hello and ask if you can do anything to support that person. Contacts is available on LinkedIn mobile as well, so you can ping your contacts and maintain your relationships anywhere.

3. How often should you reach out to people just to “be in touch”?

All of the above tips may seem quite time consuming, but the reality is a “just to be in touch” outreach once or twice a year is usually enough to maintain a professional relationship — as long as those touch points are genuine and personal (i.e., not a “Hi Everyone!” mass email update). If you get into the habit of wishing people a Happy Birthday on their special day or sending personal holiday greetings in December, that means one additional outreach per person should suffice.

What’s most important to remember is to be authentic and generous in all of your networking efforts. It’s not about collecting as many contacts as possible or providing everyone with a weekly update on your job search. Networking is about building and maintaining mutually beneficial, long-term relationships that both sides genuinely appreciate. Good luck!