As of June 2016, the unemployment rate sits at 4.9% — roughly where it was ten years ago today. But in the decade since, much has changed. The Great Recession took the economy on a wild ride, making job seekers clutch their resumes close to their chests. The “Gig Economy” came into being, and many who were once employed in their career of choice found new jobs as drivers, errand runners, and temps of all stripes. And of course the process of finding jobs changed radically, too. The dominance of big job boards like Monster and CareerBuilder is no more. Now the most sought-after gigs go to people who know people.
This is where the LinkedIn comes in. Born in 2002 in co-founder Reid Hoffman’s living room, the social network is now the de facto career destination on the web. Neither a job board, company review website, nor an online gossip mill, LinkedIn is the go-to portal for professional networking, offering a variety of tools toward that end. Job seekers (both active and passive) who once regarded every turn of phrase on their CV as a competitive secret now post their job experience online with pride.
LinkedIn currently has 433 million members from more than 200 countries. According to comScore, the site’s age demographics are the most balanced in all of social media. As of late 2014, 35% of its users were between 18-34 years old, 40% were 35-54, and 25% were age 55 and over. It’s also a user base that’s consistently growing — two people join LinkedIn per second, with recent college graduates representing the bulk of the site’s new members.
But why are they coming? That is the big question behind the popularity and utility of LinkedIn. With cash-strapped employers offering fewer benefits and people feeling simultaneously overworked and under-employed, the loyalty that once shored up the workforce has eroded. Now workers make lateral move after lateral move like a real-world Frogger, occasionally leaping up another level in their professional life. And to move up — or over — they need to have connections. That’s where LinkedIn comes in.
Here’s what you need to know to master it.
The LinkedIn Homepage
After you sign up for LinkedIn and build your profile (more on that below), the LinkedIn homepage serves as the starting point for your business-oriented online dealings. Structured like the infinitely scrolling news feeds of Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn’s interface is designed for interaction. It wants you to give virtual high-fives and pats on the back to your colleagues and contacts — and to help you connect you with even more of them.
At the top of the homepage in black is the navigation bar, which serves as the launch pad for many interactions on the site. The search window takes up a lot of space on this strip. That’s because LinkedIn wants its users to seek out former (and future) colleagues, companies, and other organizations. The advanced search link next to the search windows lets users further tap the vast amounts of professional data that people plug into this social network.
On a related note, this user data is what makes LinkedIn so valuable, both professionally and financially. In fact, partly because of this vast trove of professional information, Microsoft recently purchased LinkedIn for about $26 billion, one of the largest technology acquisitions ever.
But back to the navigation bar. On the top right you’ll also find icons (with alert badges) for messages from other users, notifications from LinkedIn, and connection invitations. If you’re an active LinkedIn user, clearing the alerts on these three icons can be a Sisyphean task — especially because the social network will throw some suggestions in them to keep your account whirring. If you’re an “inbox zero” type, you might want to unsubscribe from that philosophy while using this site.
And finally, in the right corner of the navigation bar is the account and settings icon. This is where you can adjust things like privacy preferences, languages, and account types.
LinkedIn is free to use, but it also offers a “premium” version for $30 per month. That may seem like a steep rate, but it’s a popular offering — the social network raked in $532 million in LinkedIn Premium fees in 2015 alone.
Below the navigation bar is the dashboard, a not-so-subtle prompt by the company for users to plug more information into their personal page. Within this panel you’ll see how many connections you have, as well as a link to information about how many people have viewed your profile recently. Yes, unlike Facebook and Twitter, on this social network you can see who has been scoping you out — well, some of them. For a complete list, you’ll need to subscribe to LinkedIn Premium. (Now you can see why so many people pay up.)
Below the dashboard are the usual social media tools, which let users add content to the site’s feed, including status updates, photos, and posts. On LinkedIn, status updates and posts are distinctly different pieces of information. A status update is a good way to say whatever is on your mind, or to share links that you think your professional contacts would find interesting. Posts are articles that you can publish on LinkedIn. Clicking on “publish a post” opens a text editing page that lets users add rich media including images, videos, presentations, tweets, and even podcasts to your LinkedIn feed. It’s a very good professional publishing tool. Once you create and share these updates, images, or other media, they all go into that infinite scroll that your contacts see on their LinkedIn homepages.
Finally, in the right-hand column of the LinkedIn homepage is the “keep in touch” box. A horizontally scrolling carousel of your contacts, this is LinkedIn’s way of encouraging interaction among its users. The idea is that liking a recent update or sending a quick message to a former colleague can be a great way to get you two working together again. Hey, it can’t hurt, right?
Your LinkedIn Profile
The secret to getting the most out of your LinkedIn experience is straightforward: you’ve got to put your best effort into making a rich and vibrant LinkedIn profile. If you don’t believe me, take recruiters’ word for it. According to a 2014 survey by recruiting platform Jobvite, 93% of hiring managers look at people’s social profiles before deciding to hire them. So set all your Facebook posts to private, delete any inadvisable tweets, and let LinkedIn be your face to the professional world.
The first step in doing that actually involves your face — make sure to post a profile picture on your account. According to LinkedIn, people are 14 times more likely to open a profile with a photo attached to it. As for what makes a good profile picture (should you smile or not?), there are different schools of thought. Recruiters spend lots of time looking at LinkedIn and have excellent advice for crafting attention-getting profiles.
Beyond the photo, there’s still much to be done in crafting an effective LinkedIn profile. Just as important as including a profile photo and your name is writing a headline for your profile. Found just below your name on your profile, the headline — along with your current job title — is one of few bits of information shown when your profile is found by LinkedIn’s search engine, so make it a good one. Just make sure not to repeat your job title there. Instead, use the headline like a newspaper editor would: to grab a person’s attention and compel him or her to read on.
One way to do this is to write your headline (and as much of your profile as possible) around keywords specific to the job you want (not necessarily the job you’ve got). To do this, pull up a job listing you may be interested in, note the important terms, and then weave them into your profile, starting with the headline. So, for instance, you may feel like you’re just a lowly staff accountant, but in the headline, you become a “Experienced Corporate Accountant With Experience Handling Millions in Billables.” Lo and behold, lowly no more.
Next on the profile is the summary panel. Similar to the “objectives” area at the top of a resume, this is where LinkedIn users can write a brief blurb about who they are and what they do. But unlike on a resume, this spot is a good place to get creative and let your personality show. In other words, feel free to write in the first person here (it comes across as friendly and engaging) and go ahead and mix in personal and volunteer passions to paint a full, vivid portrait of who you really are. The idea is to give people more reasons to interact with you online, and eventually — hopefully — in person, too.
Another major element of your LinkedIn Profile is the experience panel. This is more or less your resume, repackaged for the web. And don’t just stop with your current gig — fill this out as far back as it’s applicable. Profiles are 12 times more likely to be viewed if they list more than one job, says LinkedIn.
But don’t make it difficult on yourself. Feel free to copy and paste as well as elaborate or curtail the keystrokes you’ve already painstakingly pecked out for your resume. But again, mind the tip above about keywords. If you want to be the person that people find on LinkedIn, you need to promote yourself as the person they are looking for.
And if you’re good at your job (or even if you aren’t), don’t hesitate to brag. Listing your various skills is another way to get eyeballs coming your way. As easy as clicking a box, listing your skills will prompt your contacts to endorse your talents. And these endorsements look great to hiring managers when they check out your profile.
Rather than cramming everything onto an 8.5×11-inch page, LinkedIn lets its users go much further in promoting themselves, especially through the other various sections that the profile allows. Beyond the typical resume section headers for education, outside activities, and awards the site lets users include other important information like test scores, advice for contacting, and even causes you care about. And the more information that you include on your profile, the more likely it is to be served up in other users’ search results. So grab that keyboard and start writing.
A connection, LinkedIn’s version of Facebook’s friends and Twitters followers, is what happens when two people on LinkedIn acknowledge they know each other in some capacity. And this makes an important difference between LinkedIn and those other sites — you don’t have to agree with or like your LinkedIn connections, since they aren’t your friends or followers. You merely need to know them. (And really, that’s not even an official requirement.)
Connections are important to LinkedIn for the reasons they are important in the physical world: The more you have, the more opportunities become available to you. For example, say you work in sales and want to sell your wares to someone at Acme Corp. Searching for Acme Corp. on LinkedIn, you discover that you don’t know anyone who works there. But you do know someone who knows someone who works there (what LinkedIn calls a “second degree” connection). And now you can ask your connection for an introduction to that person. So, it pays to know people.
As involved as the profile-making process on LinkedIn can be, all that effort pays off when you start making connections. For instance, if you told LinkedIn you went to a particular school, it will use that information to help you find fellow classmates. Likewise, if you worked at a certain company for a period of time, LinkedIn will cross-reference its database to help you connect with co-workers from your tenure there. So, the more information you give LinkedIn, the more connections it can help you make.
Another way to bulk up on your connections is to simply click the “grow your network” link on the LinkedIn homepage. LinkedIn has an impressive suggestion engine that mines lots of online data to figure out the people you are interacting with. To do this, LinkedIn documents who you search for online and even in your email. Is it creepy? It sure can be. But the service is also free — and of course you know that nothing is truly free. (Note: There are ways to minimize the data you share with LinkedIn, but they also reduce the service’s effectiveness. To access these, select the “privacy” link on the account and settings icon on the righthand side of the navigation bar.)
Other ways to make more connections on LinkedIn is to be active on the site. Posting frequent status updates and commenting or liking others will circulate your name on other peoples’ LinkedIn feeds, potentially helping your profile to catch their eye. Likewise, publishing posts on LinkedIn will circulate content with your name attached to it, helping to promote you as a thought leader in your line of work.
You can also bolster your LinkedIn network by joining groups there. A way for users to share news and have discussion with other users who aren’t necessarily connections, LinkedIn’s groups feature is an excellent way to do some old fashioned networking on a newfangled social network. However, there is a minor challenge in using this feature: You have to find quality groups. As with many new social media features, people rushed to make groups, and then, in many cases, users didn’t follow. But active groups can be a great way to make connections that you might otherwise miss.
The Future of Work
When Microsoft announced its plans to acquire LinkedIn, it said its goals were to “accelerate the growth of LinkedIn as well as Microsoft 365.” That means that the LinkedIn we see today most likely will not be the same as the LinkedIn of tomorrow. But then again, nothing successful ever stands pat in the business world. And neither do ambitious LinkedIn users.
There are many more features to LinkedIn than were mentioned in this guide. But the ones mentioned here serve as a solid foundation for getting the most out of your experience on the professional social network. But to use it right, you need to use it frequently, and in that, LinkedIn can be a bit of a rat race. If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. But if you can’t work hard at improving yourself professionally, what does that say about the effort you put in on the job?