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Can this be your missing link? It has 100m users and is known as ‘the Facebook for suits’. Is LinkedIn is the business site you can’t ignore?

What’s your idea of business networking? A round of golf perhaps, a brief exchange of business cards at a trade show or a meeting in the dowdy conference room of a provincial hotel?   Like most people you probably find it a chore, but the stewed tea and broken Bourbons might soon be a thing of the past because social media is oiling the wheels of commerce — and LinkedIn is handling the introductions.   You might know LinkedIn from the daily requests from someone you have never heard of to join a network in which you have no interest. Or you may have joined at some stage in the past, thought it was a good idea, never to return. But according to some media and business experts, you ignore it at your peril.

Dubbed the “Facebook for suits”, the US social media site now has 100 million global users, six million of them in the UK, where it opened for business three years ago. The word from the internet’s other great growth business, social media analysts, is that if you’re not on it you’re nobody.

“If I was a CEO and time was precious I’d probably not bother with it much, but anyone else would be foolish to ignore it,” says Steve Virgin, director at Media Focus UK and a trustee of Wikimedia. Today we’re all marketing people and the most important thing we market is ourselves.”   I signed up to the site 18 months ago after an invitation from a colleague, but like most people have done little with it. Am I ignoring a potential professional goldmine? If I take LinkedIn seriously, will it double my business?

These are the questions that lead me to the company’s freshly minted offices behind Tottenham Court Road, Central London, to receive a networking masterclass from its communications chief, Richard George. A large TV screen in the boardroom displays LinkedIn’s mind-numbingly anodyne website and, more importantly, my perfunctory profile. Outside, employees beaver away providing IT support and recruitment and sales services in an open-plan office. At the far end is a canteen where staff gather to hear proclamations from Jeff Weiner, CEO and former Yahoo! executive, at a fortnightly videoconference.   “Everything starts with your profile. This is your professional identity, your CV,” George says, regarding mine with evident disdain. “You need to provide more information about yourself.   We give away a huge amount of functionality, it’s up to you to use it.”

LinkedIn was launched in California in May 2003 by Reid Hoffman, a US web entrepreneur and former executive on PayPal, who helped to engineer the meeting between Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his first investors.   It took LinkedIn a year from its start to reach 500,000 members; today it is growing at a million a week. A month ago it also became the first social network to float on the New York Stock Exchange, prompting a frenzy of trading that saw shares leap from $45 to a high of $122 each. The valuation of $9 billion recalled the gold rush of the first dot-com boom a decade ago.

“It has grown massively in importance and in numbers and the one is a consequence of the other,” says Jan Vermeiren, founder of Networking Coach and author of How to Really Use LinkedIn. “Whether you are an individual or a company it is essential in your professional life.”   Perhaps. But most people just register and that’s it. “They don’t do much with it,” Vermeiren agrees. “But once you define your goal, what or for whom you are looking, you can see its value.”   Back at LinkedIn’s office we go about making “Brand Me”. A picture is uploaded, my skill summary is expanded, my past history filled in. Privacy has become one of the biggest issues of today. Cookies mean your electronic footprints are everywhere and for the (rightly) paranoid, revealing more information about your education, background, skills and interests to the world seems foolish, but LinkedIn stakes its reputation on ring-fencing your image.   “I was chatting to a guy recently who was worried about his daughter being on Facebook,” Virgin says. “I told him there’s a new form of privacy now. You have to accept that old notions of privacy don’t exist. You’re there whether you like it or not. It’s about turning it to your advantage and LinkedIn can be controlled in a way that Facebook can’t.”

Step two in my social networking lesson: make some connections. Connections are like your Facebook friends: they’re people you might do business with or who might help you to do business. A quick way to get started is by synching your e-mail address book with the site, but each time you do business with someone you can also invite them to connect. The point is not that you connect with them but that you link into their network. You have to conclude that the more you put into something this way, the more you get out. Equally, you will receive requests for introduction, but you have a choice on whether you acknowledge them positively (do you know them? Are they likely to be of any use?).   As in life, not all requests are granted. There were some abject failures. An attempt to reach an editor on the BBC sport website crashed. The football agent blanked me (no surprise there). Nevertheless, I grew in popularity with 57 connections, which apparently linked me to a mind-boggling 1,303,000 professionals. Cool. Even if it did feel a bit like freshers’ week.

“Well it’s not new or especially radical,” Virgin says. “It’s taking something we’ve always done but it’s doing it faster than ever before.”   Of the many people to whom I spoke, — in PR, sales, finance and marketing — not one had a bad word to say about LinkedIn. Several said that it had got them a new job. The jobs market is a big driver for LinkedIn and a key source of revenue. You may not even know you’re in the market for a job until one is offered.   Tim McLoughlin, a social media expert at Aegis Group, had switched jobs the previous week when I contacted him. “I was looking for a change,” he says. “I did almost my entire job-surfing on LinkedIn by looking up companies I was interested in to see if I had any connections. I asked for some recommendations and ended up at a place where I had never met anyone face to face.”   For this reason LinkedIn is becoming an essential tool in the recruitment industry. Users are polishing themselves up, companies are using search tools to track them down.   Last year the recruitment agency Hays carried out a survey of 500 professionals and 60 per cent were aware that employers used it to research potential recruits.

Chris McCarthy, a Hays director, has been a member since the site opened eight years ago and now uses it every day. “It has increased our source pool,” he says. “Your profile is an online CV and we read hundreds every day, which we benchmark against others. That’s why you should make an effort. We search by job title or regionally or we can go through competitors. What we want is a career history with a solid track record of progression.   “Where we are really seeing its reach is as a global tool. I recently found someone for a UK manufacturer in China who was German. Advertising may not have worked for that. You can gain access to experts very quickly. It’s also meritocratic, it does away with all the old-school-tie stuff because your CV is there alongside everyone else’s.”

Actually your educational background is part of your profile, but one colleague in market research, who also uses it regularly, warns against an expectation that a job will drop in your lap. “I don’t think there are any epiphanies. It’s more subtle than that,” he says.   There is also the issue of potential conflict between companies and employees. “I tell CEOs that they have to trust the people who work for them,” says Vermeiren, for whom training companies is now his biggest growth area. “They need to have a calm discussion about the consequences of misusing LinkedIn. Generally, people act as ambassadors and promote the company. If you tell people you’re going to monitor their behaviour then they’re not going to show goodwill.”   McCarthy has seen the other side, the indiscretion and the bitching. “Companies need to be wary about how employees use it. I’ve come across some profiles with staggering stuff that doesn’t exactly represent the company in the best light,” he says. “Pictures revealing too much, indiscreet comments.”

With LinkedIn’s middle-management client base, the consequences of a bitch about the boss on the Twitter feed you synched to your account could be much worse than a PA getting fired.   And don’t think you aren’t being watched. Last month the software developer Actiance announced a new add-on called Socialite that intercepts new edits of LinkedIn profiles and automatically reroutes the changes for review. Employers might see any alteration as a “come-on” to recruiters.   Further potential conflict exists in all those useful connections you make in doinging your job: your client base. When the split happens, who gets the kids?   “The legal side of social media is evolving steadily,” Virgin says. “The data has a real value so you can see a time where the company wants to own your contacts if you leave because you built them up on the company’s time and through the company’s reach. If you attempt to hit on those contacts and get them to move their business it becomes an issue. Someone is going to clean their previous employer out and there’s going to be a court case.”

Back at my home page further surfing in Events (under “More”) reveals LinkedIn London, a face-to-face gathering run by Jorgen Sundberg, founder of Link Humans, a social media consultancy. I attend its next meeting upstairs in a Holborn pub, where Sundberg explains how to exploit LinkedIn to a dozen members including Jinessh, a business development manager, and Edita, an accounts manager, both keen for a move.   I meet Andrew Pothecary, the young MD of WCAFI, which makes a “clean air kit” aimed at companies interested in branding them as corporate gifts. Beer in hand he proves an enthusiastic LinkedIn proselyte.   “I’ve been using it an awful lot the past six months to analyse who I’ve been in contact with by e-mail and reconnecting with them by LinkedIn. I used a contact in Canada to set up a deal with Mastercard UK and I found three or four commercial agents on the groups page who are keen to meet me. It makes networking in real life that bit easier, it’s a great facilitator.

We’re here today meeting people, tomorrow we’ll be back on LinkedIn looking for more people to meet. That’s how it works.”   It’s probably me but there’s an air of forced bonhomie at such events: they feel awkward and artificial and it’s hard to say what value they have apart from reacquainting people with those redundant social skills.   It might be my misanthropic tendencies but it makes me want to retreat behind my profile and fire off more invitations. It’s a lot less effort after all.   How to control your career with LinkedIn   It all starts with your profile. It’s your resumé, so follow the instructions carefully.   Upload a head and shoulders picture eBay-style. Think “appropriate”.   Expand your summary. Explain your job role, making sure that you use keywords because this acts as SEO — search engine optimisation — pushing you up the rankings.   Avoid bad jokes.   Expand your network — send out invitations but don’t hassle people. Don’t play the numbers game — it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

Join relevant Groups (some are open, some closed and you have to request admission).   Use the search engine tool at the top right of the page to find people who could be of use. Post recommendations. Someone must have been impressed by you. Ask them to add a testimonial. Don’t make it look like a swapsie.   Avoid posting sensitive information or complaining about your job.   If you Twitter, pair it up with your LinkedIn account. But remember that people are now receiving your tweets. We don’t care if you had a bagel for breakfast.   Be visible. Updating your profile and interacting subtly reminds your contacts that you’re out there.   What your social network says about you   I am not a LinkedIn user. When I receive a request from someone to connect with them on LinkedIn, I feel much the same way as the Times columnist Caitlin Moran, who wrote on Twitter recently: “*endless sorrow* My brother has invited me to join him on LinkedIn. I’d rather he’d just formally told me we have nothing in common.”   What social network you belong to says something about you — your background, your aspirations and, of course, your friends.

LinkedIn has the well-earned reputation of being “Facebook for suits”, emphasising networking rather than being sociable. The idea of making connections to others mainly to advance you career can seem a bit distasteful and phoney.   All the same, millions of people want to be part of LinkedIn and many of us are now active members of more than one network. At various times I have used Facebook, MySpace and Twitter — MySpace’s focus on new music appeals to my wannabe-trendy side. Twitter has become a valuable journalistic tool, keeping me in touch with the day’s events faster than any other news feed.   Then there’s Facebook, the biggest beast of them all with 700 million users worldwide. One person in three in the UK is on the site, which has become a one-stop socialising shop with tentacles that reach all over the web.   So, we may dabble in LinkedIn, especially with its promise to get us a better job and higher salary. But Facebook is the site that has made social networkers of us all.