In my years of writing The Friedman File articles, I try not to rant too often. No one likes a crotchety consultant who complains about stuff but doesn’t offer advice or alternative solutions. But for months now, something’s been getting under my skin. What’s up with LinkedIn? What used to be a unique, thoughtful B-to-B social networking tool has become an annoying commoditized pain in the butt. In this issue, I’m going to address a few of the observations I’ve made and review what I believe are LinkedIn’s most valuable applications for marketing, business development and recruiting.

What perplexes me about LinkedIn

About six months ago, I started noticing multiple pings each day from folks (some I knew and some I didn’t) wanting to “connect” with me (a definite uptick). One explanation: more and more, it’s becoming common practice in many industries to put LinkedIn profile links on web site bio pages (“connect with me”), which encourages a lot more connections that you may not personally know. This is part of an overall shift in how people (particularly young professionals) see LinkedIn — as a social tool and not just a networking tool.

At about the same time, frequent e-mails started coming in from LinkedIn — telling me things such as, “Congratulations! Your connection Bill Gates has endorsed you for the following skills and expertise.” I knew these people who endorsed me, but many I have never directly consulted with. While I appreciate these unsolicited endorsements, how could they credibly endorse me for a particular skill or expertise if they’ve never worked with me? Based solely on my written word? In some cases, I’ve been endorsed for skills and expertise that aren’t even my niche and areas where I’d recommend another consultant. And where’s Miss Manners’ Guide to LinkedIn Etiquette when you need it? When someone endorses me, am I expected to reciprocally endorse them? (At this point, I want to issue a blanket apology to anyone whose feelings I may have hurt by not doing so.) When and why did LinkedIn so swiftly transform its strategy from “pull” to “push” marketing? Is this what they think users want and need?

While we’re on the subject, here are a few other things that bug me about LinkedIn use:

Generic Invitations. When you reach out to someone you’d like to connect with, please don’t take the easy way out by selecting LinkedIn’s default invitation message: “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! If you’re reaching out to a past/current/potential client, a business partner or subconsultant, a potential employee or employer, or even a friend, take the extra minute or two to personalize and customize the message. If you don’t, you run the risk of recipients connecting these dots for you:

  • You’re too lazy or too busy to craft a customized message. Is that how you would conduct any targeted marketing, business development, or other business effort?
  • You don’t get that LinkedIn is, first and foremost, a business tool, not the B-to-B equivalent of Facebook.
  • You have too much time on your hands. People are busy, and they want to know why you’re reaching out to them, not that you’re trolling for connections. This leads me to my next pet peeve…

Those who view LinkedIn as a popularity contest. How special do you feel when someone invites you to join their network of “500+” (which is, from what I can gather, LinkedIn’s highest possible range when quantifying one’s number of contacts)? Be discriminating! Be strategic! I fear that many of the folks who view LinkedIn this way are the same glad-handing, salesy folks who collect business cards right and left with no intention of following up with any of these people.

So, what’s the real value of LinkedIn?

Networking. Of course, networking is LinkedIn’s sweet spot. If you’d like to gain electronic access to someone else’s contacts and ask your “first-level” connection to make an introduction on your behalf, LinkedIn can be an incredibly valuable tool. Even making the equivalent of a “cold call” by tracking down someone you want to meet and reaching out to them in a genuine, sincere, thoughtful way can be simplified with LinkedIn (i.e., not: “I’d like to add you….”). Did you know, for example, that you can search your network to see who’s a member of a particular professional association? Imagine the possibilities!

Marketing Intelligence. Join industry/user affinity groups (e.g., ULI, SCUP Mid-Atlantic, ICSC, your alma mater) and follow discussions and postings. Doing so enables you to stay current on trends, offers useful articles and blogs, and in general, reveals pain points that your target audience is grappling with.

Market Positioning/Thought Leadership. When monitoring information and postings, chime in whenever you or your firm has an idea, resource, case study or best practice that can help a member of that LinkedIn community. This positions you/your firm as a thought leader among a broad group of users, most of whom you may not know or have in your CRM. Better yet…start your own user group (though it’s a fair amount of work to keep up with, and those who’ve done it report mixed results).

Here are some other suggestions (again, in the context of a specific LinkedIn user group that your clients are likely to join):

  • Submit thought-provoking questions to start a dialogue.
  • Rather than relying on unsolicited endorsements that are clogging LinkedIn’s airwaves, solicit personalized, customized written endorsements from influential people who know you best, and add them to your own profile.
  • Announce important news and upcoming events, such as recent articles you’ve written and upcoming talks and workshops you’ll be presenting. If you have a company blog, this task can often be automated to sync with your blog postings.

Recruiting. Whether it’s your firm’s LinkedIn page (where you can advertise open positions) or searching keywords to identify potential candidates, LinkedIn can be a very powerful recruiting tool. It’s amazing that I can search LinkedIn for qualified candidates in a particular region, with specific keywords in their title and skills listed in their profile, and then connect with them via LinkedIn or by contacting them at their place of employment. You can be even more strategic by searching a shortlist of competitors, combined with specific disciplines or capabilities, and see who pops up. Don’t forget, of course, that identifying candidates is only half the battle. You still need to rely on someone who is skilled at asking the right questions and selling the candidate on your firm and the opportunity.

How do you derive value from LinkedIn? Have you changed how you use this tool? Call or e-mail me at 508-276-1101 or, as I’d love to hear your thoughts.