If you've ever attended a local business networking breakfast in hopes of making new contacts or finding a new job, you'll be excused for wondering why you were there.
LinkedIn, the networking site for professionals, offers an alternative. With more than 259 million members in more than 200 countries, LinkedIn offers users, most of whom pay nothing for the service, a chance to hone and increase their contacts. Users can also limit their connections to others who can best help them professionally.
"People need resources to find a job and contribute to their community," said LinkedIn's co-founder, Allen Blue. "We want to create an economic opportunity for every professional."
But that promise won't mean much if the site is not used correctly. Failing to keep a LinkedIn profile updated, ignoring connection requests or connecting with the wrong people can make the site as pointless as attending that local business breakfast.
First, the basics: LinkedIn allows users to create a compelling text-and-multimedia narrative of their life and work. It can be updated at will, can be any length and it will often pop up in a Web search of the user's name. "This is the next-generation resume," Blue said.
Once you sign up for the service, LinkedIn guides you through the process of creating a profile. Write an extensive one that speaks to your strengths, skills and experience. Add multimedia, such as slide presentations and links to examples of your work.
Use the headline space (right under your name) to create a compelling statement about yourself. Instead of "third assistant stock clerk," be creative. "Inventory manager with over 20 years' experience" will generate more views.
As Ted Prodromou, a San Francisco consultant and author of a book on how to use LinkedIn, says, "What would you type in, to find you?"
Prodromou also recommends looking at profiles of people who work in similar fields and appear to be successful in attracting contacts, and then use similar keywords. Add a photo, preferably a professional one. According to LinkedIn, a photo will increase by 11 times the likelihood that recruiters will click on your name. And if you list more than one professional position, you'll increase your visibility 12 times.
LinkedIn will automatically let all your contacts know every time you change your profile. That means colleagues will be automatically informed when you change jobs or add some additional experiences. Unfortunately, your colleagues will also be told that you've taken a new job even if you simply changed the title of your existing one.
To avoid embarrassing congratulatory emails for something you haven't done, turn off those notification settings before you post your profile. To do so, hover your cursor over your picture in the upper right. Then click "Review," next to "Privacy and Settings."
On the "Profile" tab, you can turn off these "activity broadcasts" or decide who should see them if you want to leave them on. This is also where you can choose to let others know you have viewed their profile (or prefer to be anonymous), determine how much of your profile strangers can see, automatically send profile updates to your Twitter account and other options.
To pique the interest of recruiters, keep your profile up to date. Add new accomplishments and suggest news articles for others to read in the "Share an Update" field at the top of your home page.
Don't accept every invitation to join someone's network of contacts. The point of LinkedIn, according to Blue, is not to amass the greatest number of contacts, but to connect with those you know and trust, who then can introduce you to others you may wish to meet.
But if you do receive an invitation to connect from a stranger, you may want to use it to your advantage. Jasmine Sandler, a New York-based owner of Agent-cy, an online marketing company, suggests you reach out to that person, schedule a phone call and see if there's a reason to create a professional relationship.
Another way to increase your stature is to join interest groups. You'll find them by searching for names and key words in the search bar at the top of the screen. Once you participate in a group, you can offer advice, contacts and news articles to group members, many of whom are likely to share your interests and career goals.
Join discussion groups that focus on particular companies at which you might like to work. If a job opens up, you'll be able to call upon company executives that you've become familiar with in the group.
By commenting in groups, others will send your comments to a network of which you may not be a part, and your name recognition will spread.
One source of attention you may not want, however, is a relatively new LinkedIn feature called Endorsements. LinkedIn culls profiles and then suggests to your first-level contacts (those to whom you have directly linked) that they endorse you for skills LinkedIn's algorithms think you may have.
Unfortunately, those suggestions can be inaccurate. "Turn off endorsements," Prodromou said. "They don't add any value. "