Social networking has become very big in the Web 2.0 world, as I discussed in a post on my personal blog. In addition to MySpace and FaceBook, Google has Orkut, and many other companies, like Ning, allow you to create your own customized social network. One of the biggest social networking evangelists, at least for FaceBook, has been blogger Robert Scoble. He has actually reached the FaceBook Friend limit of 5,000, and has even posited that it can replace your Rolodex or Outlook Contact database, and have legitimate business marketing uses. He likens a FaceBook Profile to what a person would see if they walked in to your office: pictures of your family (pictures can be posted to FaceBook), diplomas on the wall (information on what schools you attended), awards you have received, professional organizations you belong to, your interests (the digital equivalent of that golfing trophy), and the like. Developers are coming out with applications that work with FaceBook all the time that do all sorts of things. The question is, is it the best online tool to build your business?

Some say definitely not. Scott Karp comments quite emphatically on his blog that FaceBook is not for business, and that its core user base of college students are off laughing to themselves at the attempts by the “grown-ups” to figure out a way to use FaceBook for business. Robert Scoble fires back with a post about how FaceBook is definitely moving towards business uses and that the app can be both a business and social network at the same time.

In order to answer this question for myself, I started checking out another networking service, LinkedIn, which is specifically aimed at the business professional. Initially, it appeared like other networking sites, asking you to fill out a profile and seek Friends or Connections on the site, or Invite others to join. However, that is where the similarity ended. LinkedIn is most definitely a business tool, not a social networking site, that can be used for business. First off, part of the profile acts as an electronic resume with the ability to give a complete job history, educational background, honors and awards you have received, and the like. This ties into the Jobs and Hiring tab that allows you to use the network to look for employment or look for someone to employ. It can also act as a dynamic, virtual business card, giving prospective clients more information about you.

Second, if you are one professional looking for another professional (e.g. a lawyer looking for an expert) you can use the network and your connections to other people to find the right person in that field through the Services tab. Members can also recommend other members, and the listings of service providers can be listed by number of recommendations (clients can Recommend you, you can Recommend others). You can look at all LinkedIn users or just those in your network of connections. The reverse is also true; if one or more of your clients is on LinkedIn, they can Recommend you as a good lawyer and move you up the listing for people that are looking for a good lawyer.

Third, you have the capability to tap into the human knowledge base that is your network through the Answers tab. There you can ask a question or answer one. By asking questions you are able to get some expert information in other fields; by answering questions you are developing a reputation as a good professional source on the network that may well lead to business. This reputation is gained by ratings from the questioners. If someone picks your answer as the best one to his or her question, you gain a point that raises you in the rankings as an expert in that area. You can also subscribe to a feed of questions in your area of expertise, so you are alerted when new questions are posted. Although answers must be crafted properly to avoid malpractice issues and the appearance of the unauthorized practice of law, this can still be a good marketing opportunity.

Finally, there are tools to help promote your LinkedIn presence. For example, the site provides you with many Link icons to put on blogs and web sites that direct people to your LinkedIn profile. A link to mine is at the bottom of my About page. It also allows you to create an e-mail Signature File using html code that looks like a little business card and also directs people to LinkedIn.

LinkedIn has many free features, but like any web business, this one wants to make money, and there are premium accounts you can pay for in order to get more features. You gain the ability to send InMails (an e-mail system internal to LinkedIn) as well as receive them, you can participate in OpenLink which allows, among other things, message senders outside of your network to see your full profile and name, instead of just a summary profile (thus allowing you to tell more about yourself to prospective members of your network), and expand your search criteria for other professionals for further “degrees of separation” in the LinkedIn network. These plans start at $19.95 per month or $199.50 per year (with 2 months free). Unlike FaceBook, Orkut, and MySpace, which make money from advertising, this business networking site is all business. However, you do have the ability to try the network for awhile in its free version to see if you will get a substantial enough return on your investment to make it worthwhile. Fortunately, you only need to get one client a year for this system to pay for itself. Give it a try and see what you think. If you want to Link up with me, please feel free to do so. I am at www.linkedin.com/in/steverichardson.

UPDATE: The New York Times reported today (October 12, 2007) that LinkedIn is working on an “application programming interface, or A.P.I., that allows outside developers to weave their own programs into its site.” This would add one of the most popular features of FaceBook to the site: third party apps. However, they will not mimic the character of many FaceBook apps. Says Dan Nye, the CEO of LinkedIn:

““We have no interest in doing it like Facebook with an open A.P.I. letting people do whatever they want,” Mr. Nye said. “We’re not going to have people sending electronic hamburgers to each other.”

Mr. Nye also pointed out what I was saying is the difference between LinkeIn and Facebook/MySpace:

“he doesn’t consider LinkedIn to be a social network. The corporate mission is to build a ‘productivity tool to make professional people more effective.’ For now, that means the service is built for recruiting, sales and information gathering. “

So LinkedIn is all business and is proud of it. Also, participating on more than one network for more than one purpose is also not so bad. The article goes on to say that “even people who do want to spend their days tossing burgers at their buddies on Facebook may also want to put on a more dignified face on LinkedIn.” Mr. Nye states,

“When people tell the story that there will be one graph they are crazy,” he said. “These are different platforms that are built for different purposes, with different members and different relationships between them.”

This just points out that we, as professionals, need to use the right tool for the right job. Network socially on FaceBook or MySpace, but network professionally on a site like LinkedIn.

UPDATE: There is a great article on LinkedIn and the future of business networking on Read/WriteWeb that is worth reading (November 16, 2007). It makes some good observations about LinkedIn itself, rather than comparing it to Facebook and MySpace.

UPDATE (7-8-08): A recent blog post on PC World has some great suggestions for do’s and don’ts in social networking.  Check it out to get an idea of how you should be using sites like LinkedIn properly and effectively.

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