Online training for ambitious entrepreneurs

LinkedIn: 100 Million can’t be wrong!

Updated Mar 2011: If you’re in business and reading this post there’s a good chance that you’re either a member of LinkedIn, or have at least been invited at some point to join, writes Robert Clay of Marketing Wizdom.

It seems that a lot of people join LinkedIn but really don’t really know why. I’ve come across many people who poke around the site every so often and accept occasional requests to link with other members and that’s about it. It’s clear that most people don’t really understand what LinkedIn is for; how to use it; what it’s good for; what the benefits are; or how to leverage it.

In my own case it took some time and perseverance to figure out and understand it. Even now, I find that I’m still learning a lot and discovering further possibilities every week. In addition, LinkedIn are constantly adding new dimensions and capabilities to the site, which increase its usefulness.

The aim of this post, therefore, is to give you a simple understanding of what LinkedIn can do for you get you up to speed quickly on the absolute basics to save you time when you use this powerful online networking tool.

What is LinkedIn?

If you’re not familiar with LinkedIn, it is a business-oriented social networking site founded in December 2002 and launched in May 2003, mainly used for professional networking. It connects you with other business people you trust to establish professional business contacts, recruit clients or find trustworthy suppliers.

Early in 2007 there were 8.5 million users worldwide. Membership grew to 19 million a year later; by May 2009, it had more than 40 million registered users, spanning 170 industries; by February 2010 it had over 60 million and now, in March 2011 it has 100 million. Some growth! Many top companies, including all 500 of the Fortune 500 companies are represented, 499 of them by director-level and above business leaders.

Tell people what you can do for them

You can join LinkedIn free of charge, and can build an online profile that lists your experience, your interests, your educational background and expertise. Your profile will tell the world something about you, depending on the amount of information you provide. This can range from a glorified business card to a full-blown CV or resumé with bells and whistles.

Each person you connect to connects you in turn to their connections, who in turn connect you to their connections etc. You can invite business people you trust to connect with you, or accept other members’ invitations to join their networks.

If you like, LinkedIn is a more intimate way of networking than briefly exchanging business cards with a stranger when networking or attending a convention. If you meet someone at a business meeting you may get a few minutes to talk to them, but it’s an isolated communication and quickly forgotten. With LinkedIn you can get rich background information from their profile, plus you can see your mutual connections.

Equally, you can review other people’s connections and select some key people you would like to meet, or invite, or email something to, and again you can use your intermediate contact to relay the message and act as your introducer.

Build your reputation

One of the more valuable aspects of LinkedIn is the ability to build your reputation online. Other members can recommend you as a trustworthy reliable person or an expert in your field. When they do, their recommendations show up on your profile. This is similar to the very useful book reviews you see on Amazon that tell you whether or not a book is any good, just how good it is and how many people have recommended it. The more recommendations a person receives, the more highly regarded they are likely to be. This can give you very useful insights when deciding to do business with someone, or employ them.

Imagine opening a Yellow Pages to find a plumber. How do you know which ones are any good? Think of LinkedIn as a bit like a Yellow Pages, but for professional services, where you can choose service providers based on recommendations instead of the random listings you see in a directory.

Connect with people

Most people use LinkedIn to “connect with someone” in order to make a sale, or find investors, or form a partnership, or get a job or find specific expertise. Many members are directly connected to dozens or hundreds of people, while there are also some super connectors who have built up thousands of direct connections. You can be linked to millions of people in just a couple steps. It’s a great way to build a global network of business contacts that can help you in numerous ways.

You can use LinkedIn to find people e.g. former employers; former employees; old friends; old business associates; someone you met at a social event but can’t find their card; likely prospects for your product, service or expertise and people who have the expertise you need. There’s a very good chance that you can find the exact people you need, in virtually any industry, in just a couple of steps, through your LinkedIn network.

One example is a recruitment consultant who specialises in the broadcasting and media industries. He was trying to track down a digital-business executive who had recently changed jobs and relocated from the other end of the country. Someone suggested he try reaching him on LinkedIn, and sure enough he was listed there as a member. He sent a message to him, which was promptly returned the next morning, and he was able to resume a potentially beneficial business relationship.

Searching for specific expertise

Here’s another example. I was searching early in 2008 for people who had expertise in Word of Mouth marketing. Although this is a highly specialised form of marketing, I was able to find 339 such specialists within my own LinkedIn network, i.e. within three levels of contacts, in a matter of seconds. The top ranking person, who was directly linked to two of my first level contacts, turned out to be the author of a top selling book on the subject. He is also a university lecturer and consultant as well as being the former CEO and President of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and the founder and former CEO and President of the Interactive Marketing Association.

Someone with credentials like that should easily be able to meet my requirements, but if for some reason they didn’t or couldn’t, I could still fall back on the other 338 contacts who had varying degrees of expertise in this specialist field. Also, to establish who was worth contacting, I could see at a glance which of these experts had been recommended; how many recommendations each had received; how many other people each is directly connected to; and could view their profiles, read their recommendations and make a shortlist of the most appropriate people to contact before taking any further action. It’s incredibly useful to be able to glean so much valuable information in mere seconds or minutes.

Two years later, my own LinkedIn network had grown to 9.78 million contacts within 3-degrees, and LinkedIn itself has more than tripled in size. Performing the same search in February 2010 turned up 2,437 results globally within my own network (all people who I can directly contact), 129 of them in the UK where I am based, and tens of thousands within LinkedIn as a whole.

Build a global network of contacts

I came across someone who, for personal reasons, decided to move to Brazil. He thought that having a job there might be helpful since he likes to eat, but he was unsure how he could do that and also leverage the experience he had built over a long career. But since he didn’t know anyone in Brazil nor could he speak Portugese, this was quite a challenge.

He made it a priority to build a LinkedIn network in Brazil and South America which could provide the contacts he needed to build a career there. But he knew no one there professionally and had only visited occasionally as a tourist. Although it wasn’t achieved overnight, he did soon build some excellent business relationships. After this experience he realised the power of LinkedIn. If he could build “real world” relationships in a place thousands of miles away with absolutely no initial face-to-face contacts, then what could he do where he already had a large number of real contacts as a foundation to build upon?

He reports that LinkedIn has now become an important part of his business life. He maintains a large number of business contacts on it and has built most of his recent business relationships either directly or indirectly from its use.

Carry out online research

LinkedIn is also an invaluable research tool. If you want to reach a particular company, you can do a LinkedIn search for all members in that company. LinkedIn will show you not only who is there, but will even tell you the shortest route by which you are connected to them. You can then send a targeted message to the one individual you want to meet.

You can find meaningful connections prior to every meeting that can help you deepen a relationship; check out prospective employers or employees; find out how good vendors are; Get the answers you are looking for; find out much more about a company than Googling them or going to their website. You can also track your competitors; find common ground with people you want to reach … and so much more. And what I’ve covered here is really only the start.

Rather than go into more uses for LinkedIn, let’s now look at the basics of setting up your account and creating your profile.

Getting started on LinkedIn

At its most basic level, LinkedIn is free but still worthwhile. Although there are several paid upgrade options, I’m told that 98% of the 100 million members stick with the free account. It only takes a few minutes to set up your account. Once you’ve done that, you should complete all relevant details in your profile in as much detail as possible … then keep it updated.

Used correctly, LinkedIn can be a very powerful tool for keeping abreast of your contacts, finding people who can help you and for developing new business. It gives you access to millions of people and their skills and contacts. It also allows millions of people to reach you and benefit from your skills and contacts.

When you’re searching for people who can help you, you’ll be far more inclined to contact someone or use their services if their profile has been completed in full, because then you can assess whether or not they can bring anything to you. And of course their potential value to you increases dramatically if they also highly recommended by other members.

The same factors apply to your profile. If you list your current company and position and leave it at that, like most new users do, you really can’t expect people to get too excited about you and what you do. This will severely limit your ability to connect with people, and LinkedIn really won’t do you any good.

Complete your profile as if it were an executive bio, including full details of past companies, education, affiliations and activities. This will allow people to see all of your credentials.

The more information you provide, and the more recommendations you receive from other members, the more credible you will be, and the more you will benefit from your membership. After all, the breaks that come your way depend on how the world perceives you, and if the world is looking at you, you might as well put your best face forward. Properly completed, your profile becomes another asset in your Reputation Management repertoire.

To influence what people see when they search for you, fill your profile with what you want people to see. Include keywords relating to your area of expertise so that your profile shows up in any searches for your particular skills or the outcomes you can provide.

Increase your Google and search engine visibility

An effective profile can give you a lot of online visibility as LinkedIn profiles are very highly ranked by web search engines. To improve your Google page ranking, you can change your “public profile” setting to “Full View.” Your profile information will then be available for search engines to index, and your profile will be accessible to anyone who performs a web search containing the keywords you’ve included in your profile.

Each profile has its own public profile URL that you can—and should—use in your email signature, blogs, online postings etc. Instead of using the default public profile URL you can customise it to be your actual name, or something else that’s easily remembered. Mine, for example, is: http://www.linkedin.com/in/robertclay

Your LinkedIn profile also allows you to publicise your websites and blogs to search engines like Google and Yahoo. There are a few pre-selected categories like “My Website,” “My Company,” etc. If you’re linking to your personal blog, include your name or descriptive terms in the link. voila! instant search-engine optimisation for your profile.

As mentioned above, make sure you include a link to your profile as part of your email signature. That link will enable all email recipients to view all of your credentials with a single click, which would be awkward if not downright strange, as an attachment.

To further strengthen your visibility in search engines, use your public profile URL in various places on the web. When you comment in a blog, include a link to your profile in your signature.

Link to your email contacts

Once you’ve populated your profile with information and uploaded a photo, the easiest way to get started is to connect with LinkedIn members you already know. Your existing email contacts can be imported in just a few simple steps, described on the site, from virtually any address book, database or email client, including Hotmail, Gmail or Outlook.

In a matter of moments LinkedIn will tell you which of your existing contacts are already members. You can then send a personalised invite to some or all of these to join your network.

Don’t expand your network indiscriminately. Only do it if there’s value in your doing so. It’s very important that you only invite people you know well and trust or who would definitely know who you are. Don’t ask someone to connect if you don’t know them or if they have never heard of you, and you definitely shouldn’t invite everyone from your Yahoo! Groups or other online discussion groups and forums.

If you send out invitations to all and sundry, it only takes five people to hit the “I don’t know [your name]” button to get your account penalised, which means that part of your account will be “locked” until you change your practices. This helps to ensure that your contacts’ contacts, and their contacts in turn are genuinely known to one another, which is useful when you’re trying to contact other people through your own contacts.

Quality is much better than quantity. People who have a tight connection to you and know your work can give you strong introductions and will be more influential than the person with whom you’ve only ever exchanged a single email.

When you invite people to link in with you, LinkedIn provides standard boilerplate text that you can use. But that canned invitation is very basic and impersonal, and quite frankly is pretty ineffective, so you will get a much higher response if you tweak the standard text and create a much more personal communication.

A few minutes after you hit the submit button, responses will normally start flowing in. As people start accepting your invitation, your network will grow.

You can also invite any number of non-members on your list to join. I would recommend that you contact them first, reminding them of how you are connected to them and explaining what LinkedIn is and does. By all means send them a link to this post if you feel that will help. The value of having just one virtual “touch” with that person is worth far more than a dozen people in your network who you don’t even know or communicate with.

Before anyone can accept your invitation, they will be invited to set up their own free LinkedIn account. And as they grow their network, yours will grow too.

It’s worth periodically reloading your existing email contacts. With around 40 people joining LinkedIn every minute, it’s likely that a good number will have joined LinkedIn since you last checked.

Similarly it’s worth periodically performing searches for your previous companies, and your schools and colleges to get a new wave of connections.

There is much more to LinkedIn than it’s been possible to cover in this post, so in future posts I’ll expand on what’s written here.

Please share your thoughts and add your questions to the comments below. I’ll try to provide as many answers as possible in my future online videos, seminars, workshops, masterclasses and blog posts.

And if you enjoyed this post you may enjoy these posts as well.

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