The mysteries of LinkedIn

facebook_v_linkedinThere are hundreds (if not thousands) of social networking sites, but the category leaders are well defined. I have a presence on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Facebook has a strong business component, but the site is, at this point, primarily driven by individual users who are focused on personal communication and networking. (MySpace has some users, though its biggest strength these days seems to be as a site for musicians.)

And LinkedIn is head of class in professional networking.

Most people “get” Facebook after using it for a while. But I’m always incredibly surprised at how many people aren’t on LinkedIn – and how many people who are and have NO idea how to capitalize on their membership.

A basic LinkedIn account is free, so there’s no cost barrier to joining. But I’m surprised at how many people I know either don’t have an account, or haven’t really used it. I’ve connected with people who are engaging, driven career people who have a lot going on in their professional lives…..and then I see their profile, which hasn’t been updated in months and has two connections attached to it.

There’s no absolute one way to use the site, but there are some things that mystified users should keep in mind.

It’s not Facebook. This seems to be a common misconception at the beginning – and, I believe, one of the reasons people get discouraged and never really build on their initial sign-up.

LinkedIn is similar to Facebook in a few ways – profiles, connections and status updates. But it doesn’t have all of the programs, quizzes and interactive modules that Facebook hosts. Those can be really annoying, but they are massively successful at getting people to engage with Facebook. You have to be a bit more curious to find the most beneficial ways to interact with others on LinkedIn.

It’s not all dry, boring stuff. You can have some fun with your LinkedIn status update – mentioning a great song you’re listening to while working on a project, or an amazing trip you just took – but in general, you want to keep your status updates work-related.

Connect, connect, connect. Facebook can be a place where you post, and share, incredibly personal information. It’s understandable that you might want to limit users to close friends and family in that setting.

But on LinkedIn, connections are the key. You want as many solid, valuable connections as you can possibly get.

You want to be balanced in your approach to connecting with others. The first tier of connections should definitely be former co-workers, managers or supervisors. These people know you best, and know how you work and what your talents (and weaknesses are).

If you’ve interacted with other people in your company, or partnered with peers at a conference or a multi-company project, those are great people to connect with too. Whether you interacted with them for a few hours, a few days or a few years is irrelevant. The quality of that interaction – and the value that person would bring to your list of connections – is what you want to consider.

I’ve joked with people that if the person who runs the register at your corporate cafeteria is on LinkedIn, connect with them. It may be a joke, but it illustrates an important point: Why wouldn’t you connect with them? Who else interacts with almost everyone at your company? When thinking about people to connect with, you don’t want to limit yourself to just the people in your adjacent cubicle.

Of course, you also want to be discriminating. There are “open” connections who will connect with anyone. Approach those people with caution. I’m not saying you absolutely shouldn’t connect with these networkers, but make sure that the connection adds value to your presence on LinkedIn – that they are in your field, that they have an engaging profile and interact with others in a meaningful way. If they start spamming you, or repetitively posting links to a product they’re selling, it’s time to take them off of your connection list.

Engage with others. This is perhaps the most overlooked part of LinkedIn. Just having a profile and a URL to point people to it isn’t enough. You have to engage with others – and give them a reason to engage with you.

Make your profile matter. Too many people have bare-bones profiles that look like a mini-version of your resume. Believe me: they’re even MORE boring for recruiters and HR people to read than full length resumes.

Guy Kawasaki, former Apple guru and now founder of Alltop, has written a few awesome pieces about LinkedIn. He goes into specifics here on technical things, but first, check out his post on what information you need to have in your profile.

My profile used to be more like his “before” profile. Now, it looks like this.

Be interactive. LinkedIn has a number of interactive channels, where you can meet other people and learn more about them (and ultimately connect with them.)

Perhaps the most important channel is the Groups feature. There are thousands of groups that are specific to industry as well as other demographics (geography, ethnicity, and gender to name just a few). Joining a group allows you to be aware of conversations and trends – as well as potential job openings. You have to be ready for a LOT of mail in your inbox, but it’s worth it to stay in the loop. (If you’re tight on time, saving those emails to read on a long commute home or during a long wait at the airport is perfect.)

I also recommend the Questions and Answers platform. It’s a great way to engage others. If you answer a question, everyone sees how valuable your skills and knowledge are. If you ask a question, you get to show your inquisitiveness and thought process, and hear from other people who may have been faced with the same issue or problem.

And lastly, there are “plug-in” programs that you can connect to. One allows you to post reviews of business books you’d recommend to others. I use a plug-in that displays my recent posts here in my LinkedIn profile. I really recommend these too, because the more you can show people who you are, how you think and how you’d add value to their business, the more likely they are to want to talk to you about that new opportunity.

And let’s face it – that WAS why you joined LinkedIn, wasn’t it?

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