For many, LinkedIn is the social media equivalent of an awkward networking event. Friends and acquaintances have said variations of the following to me: “I’m on there but I have no idea what to use it for.” Or: “I don’t see the point of joining — my colleagues know me, my work and my email address. I don’t need to connect with them on LinkedIn.”
But consider this: According to the Pew Research Center, LinkedIn usage is especially high among the educated (bachelor’s degree holders and up), and high earners (those making $75,000 a year or more) — exactly the types of people with whom you’d want to connect professionally. It is also the only social networking site Pew measured that showed higher usage among 50-64 year olds than among those ages 18-29, which means that those with more professional experience (and who are more likely to be in a position to hire) are on the site.
And nowadays, just as a resume is necessary for a job interview, a professional online presence is needed for — well, any kind of career opportunity, whether it be a new job, speaking engagement or collaboration. And a LinkedIn profile, done right, can be that much-needed online resume and help ensure that the good work you do is publicly recognized and that others know how to reach you with relevant opportunities.
If you’re still skeptical (especially if you’re a millennial, a group less inclined to use the site), consider that for most industries, potential employers may find it strange if you’re not on there. Oftentimes, if you apply for a job, whoever vets your resume will look at your LinkedIn profile, whether it’s to see if you have mutual connections who might reveal what it’s like to work with you or to settle any questions raised when looking at your cover letter and resume.
Additionally, 98% of recruiters and 85% of hiring managers use LinkedIn to find candidates, says Viveka von Rosen, author of LinkedIn Marketing: An Hour a Day and founder of LinkedIntoBusiness.com.
“So even though there’s Glassdoor and various business tools out there that millennials are using, if they are looking for a job, certainly in traditional areas, they have to be on LinkedIn,” she says.
Professionals at all levels—entry-level, middle management and executives—use it for networking, keeping in touch with current and former colleagues, and engaging with their broader industry. And those more established in their careers also use it to promote their businesses. LinkedIn is especially important for those in recruiting, marketing/sales and service industries, ranging from financial to health/medical to legal, as those are the top industries on the site.
Here are five steps to crafting a stellar profile, building a valuable network and leveraging both to your best advantage.
1. Make a findable and visually appealing profile.
“A professional headline with your picture and your name is what people see most often on LinkedIn, so it’s worth it to take two to three minutes to craft something appealing,” says von Rosen. Upload a headshot as professional-looking as possible (even if you can’t afford to hire a photographer), and write a succinct and compelling headline, which runs right under your name. Make this 120-character space, which von Rosen calls “a mini elevator speech,” as creative and readable as possible and use keywords for your industry—whatever you would search for, or the terms you see most often on the profiles of others in your field. Most people just state their current job, but if you have multiple careers or positions, she advises focusing on skill sets.
2.Use your LinkedIn profile to showcase everything that doesn’t fit on your resume.
“LinkedIn changed its search algorithm, so take time to fill out the description areas. Don’t just list your job title, which is how people used to be able to find you,” says von Rosen. Fill out the 1,000-character description areas under each job title and in your overall summary; list your contract work and the results you got (and state the fact that it was a X-month-long assignment); upload or link to examples of your work, such as YouTube videos, images, PDFs, Microsoft Word documents; fill out the Projects and Publications sections of your profile (on the upper right in Edit Profile mode), or any other additional sections, such as Courses, Certifications, Patents or Volunteering, that allow you to feature other relevant skills.
Simon Tam is a Portland, Ore.-based “Author | Marketing Rockstar | Nonprofit Leader | Musician | Entrepreneur | Speaker.” (And yes, he really is all those things at once. His secret is applying the skills he builds in each area to the others.) His LinkedIn profile is a paragon of completeness. It features not just descriptions in every section but also his Wikipedia page and key interviews with NPR and Time;five projects including his band’s albums, tours and their fight with the U.S. Patent office; ten recommendations from colleagues; his books listed under Publications; and more than 20 awards.
“Like any other resource, the more you invest into it, the more that you get out of it,” he says. “For me, I’ve been able to make new connections, sell books, increase traffic to my websites and develop strategic partnerships. I especially found Linkedin Groups to be helpful—it was a way to connect with specific industries or markets. By participating as a community member, I was able to quickly develop influence and showcase my contributions to the group.” He says the key is to provide something of value to other members, but that it takes time, persistence and consistency to develop an audience, influence and network.
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3. When you’ve got a profile you’re ready to show the world, strategically connect with others.
Connect with existing professional and personal contacts—friends, classmates, former co-workers, current co-workers and other people in your industry whom you know. Whenever you have a positive interaction with someone with whom you think it would be good to stay in touch, send him or her a LinkedIn request. If you receive an invitation from someone you don’t know, take a look at his or her profile. “Even if they’re not a potential employer or client, maybe they work in your area or have connections that could be potential employers or clients,” says von Rosen.
Whatever you do, don’t just connect with potentially helpful people willy-nilly. If you see someone who could be useful but who you don’t know in real life, don’t squander the potential connection by sending the generic message, “Hi Laura, I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn.” Keep in mind that everyone has a different way of using the site. Some people only connect with those they know offline. Others send a request to anyone they find interesting on LinkedIn search. If you think your potential target has a more permissive policy—more than 500 connections would be a big clue, as would a completely filled out profile—then feel free to approach him or her yourself through the site.
Here, you have a few options: If you’re new to an industry or could benefit from this potential contact more than he or she could benefit from you, use the Get Introduced tool, in which you ask a current connection to introduce you to one of theirs. (Try to ask those who you are confident would do you the favor.) If you think the potential contact will perceive that he or she could benefit from knowing you as well, then you could probably just message the person directly. However, you’ll be limited to 300 characters whereas introductions have no character limit. Still, if you go this route, personalize your message, rather than send the preset LinkedIn intro. Don’t just make it about what they can do for you, but what you can do for them.
If the person seems to have a less permissive policy around connecting on LinkedIn, then you may want to get a real-life introduction by mentioning your interest in meeting this person to mutual friends. Or try to engage this person in some other platform where they might be more active, like Twitter, or just email them directly—though this latter strategy is best used when you have something specific to discuss, not just when you want to add them to your network.
4. Once you’ve got a valuable network, snoop.
Snooping is the best way to use LinkedIn, but only after you’ve forged good connections. Let’s say you’re interested in a job posting. You can use LinkedIn to find former employees who could give you insight into the company’s culture or to determine which of your own friends and acquaintances know current employees who could make an off-LinkedIn connection for you. LinkedIn could also be useful in the reverse situation — if you’re hiring. If you’re on the fence about an applicant and see that a colleague of yours knows him or her, then you can do a bit of reconnaissance.
You can also use LinkedIn even if you’re not looking at a specific job by exploring specific industries or companies. Say you want to find venture capital funding or that you want to work at a certain company. Do a search for the industry or company and then see which of your colleagues could introduce you to someone who works there via LinkedIn or in real life.
Since few people check LinkedIn every day (only 13% use it every day and 34% use it every week, according to Pew), if you can, try to reach out to your connection via email or Facebook or another platform where they are active, so your request doesn’t go unnoticed.
Through their networks, friends and family of mine have landed jobs through LinkedIn, hired people from it and gained access to important people that they had discovered on it. I have personally been recruited on the site, gotten story ideas from it, and been approached by colleagues looking to contact some of my connections. I’ve been especially impressed when others have used the site for research but then reached out to me via email or another avenue. They knew they’d be more likely to receive a response if they reached out to me through a non-LinkedIn platform.
5. Stay active on the site.
Getting the most out of LinkedIn isn’t just about using it when you want something specific. In general, it’s good to remain active even when you don’t have a grand purpose. Remind your contacts that you’re doing good work by regularly sharing links relevant to others in your industry, keeping your profile current, and updating your profile when you are hired for a new position or have another accomplishment to tout.
Finally, as with anything on the internet, the website will continue to evolve features and functionalities, so be sure to stay current with Blog.linkedin.com, LinkedIntoBusiness.com, or LinkedIn’s Tuesday night Twitter chats so you can use the site to your best advantage.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is adapted from the Forbes eBook, The Millennial Game Plan: Career And Money Secrets To Succeed In Today’s World, by Laura Shin. If you’d like to learn more about how to forge a strong career, the title is available now for download at Apple (iBooks), Amazon, (Kindle) and Vook (Nook, etc.).
Forbes.com | June 26, 2014 | Laura Shin