Monday, November 19, 2007

Business buddies: LinkedIn's online networking connects with professionals

Eric Morath / The Detroit News
A social networking Web site is making business connections for Mom and Dad the same way teen-focused sites have allowed their children to connect with friends.

Think of it as MySpace, for adults.

A professional and business social networking site, is surging in popularity nationally, adding 1 million users a month. The site, founded in 2003 with about 20,000 members, now has about 16 million users worldwide, including more than 135,000 in Metro Detroit.


Like more popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, it allows members to share information about themselves, connect with friends and colleagues and search for people with like interests or backgrounds.

But unlike those two leading sites, LinkedIn is more starched oxford than tie-dyed T-shirt. Its pages don't feature scores of photos, flashy backgrounds or music clips, but instead focus on resumes, current interests and personal references. Only recently did the service start allowing members to add a small head shot of themselves to their personal pages.

Paul Hillman, partner at Royal Oak technology firm C/D/H, discovered the site several years ago, but after making a profile, he largely ignored it. Then earlier this year, he suddenly became bombarded with requests from colleagues to join their LinkedIn networks.

"I knew about social networking because my kids were using Facebook," he said. "But once I started getting all these requests, the light bulb went off."

By cross-checking contacts stored in his e-mail software with LinkedIn members, he found that hundreds of people he knew or did business with were already members. Today, Hillman has more than 275 LinkedIn connections.

The power of LinkedIn lies in the ability to expand those connections. A person with just a dozen contacts could easily have more than 300,000 second- and third-degree connections -- people your contacts know and that their contacts know.

Hillman says knowing how those connections are made has helped him gain business.

"You can background a client you are visiting and find out that someone who works for us knows someone who now works for the client," he said. "So maybe I take that employee with me on the call You use something that is virtual to make more real connections in person."

Site competes with Facebook
LinkedIn's professional image is helping it gain traction among business users, said Jeremiah Owyang, senior research analyst at Forrester Research.

"LinkedIn is very acceptable in any situation at work," because it's geared toward business networking, sales and recruiting, he said. "Most employers don't mind if employees have Facebook accounts, but are concerned about time spent on the site and potential productivity loss."

Facebook, rather than MySpace, is the primary rival for LinkedIn, Owyang said. Facebook has a business following because the site boasts more than 40 million members, with higher incomes and more education than the more mass-market MySpace, he said.

To compete with LinkedIn and other smaller business-networking sites, Facebook offers company-specific Web pages, where networks are usually private and require a company e-mail address to access.

LinkedIn, like other networking sites, allows users to turn their page into a personal site -- which can raise a member's profile in Google and other search engine queries. LinkedIn also allows members to lob questions toward their contacts, which some users call free market research.

Dave Biskner, business development manager at Synergy Plus Solutions in Livonia, has capitalized on the growing popularity of LinkedIn by offering seminars on using the Web site to Automation Alley and other business groups. He now makes office calls to help people get started on the service.

Advantages help members
Many members fail to take advantage of the site once they join.

"I see a lot of people who have only one connection -- the person who invited them," Biskner said. "For LinkedIn to be effective, you need to spend at least 15 minutes a day on the site."

LinkedIn should aid real-life networking, not replace it, Biskner maintains.

For example, he said, LinkedIn will let you find out about the promotion of an old classmate, which gives you the chance to extend congratulations -- which could lead to a future sale or business tip, just like old-fashioned networking could.

Some have become masters at making LinkedIn connections. Jonathan B. Smith, interactive strategist at Clear!Blue Communications in Birmingham, has 1,200 contacts. Smith, who also participates in other social networking sites, said connecting virtually is key to succeeding in business today.

"I'm convinced it creates opportunities to connect with people that would have never happened in the past," he said.

"It reduces the friction toward meeting people you never know what will come from those contacts."

You can reach Eric Morath at (313) 222-2504 or

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