For businesspeople, the largest web networking site is LinkedIn.com, with over 30 million users. Many of you already have a profile posted there. But most are probably still wondering: Is this all that useful? The potential is certainly there. Besides an enormous community, LinkedIn offers a variety of helpful features. Unfortunately for A/E professionals, the potential is still largely unrealized.
I've read many articles on how to get the most out of LinkedIn (here's one of the better ones). But none were oriented towards our industry. So I offer my take, for what it's worth. Admittedly, I'm hardly a power user. I have a modest 72 connections at this time, although that's more than most in my network have. I am a member of 8 networking groups, 6 of which relate to the A/E business. I've used LinkedIn every week for months now. So, ready or not, I'm ready to render a verdict.
LinkedIn is great for reconnecting with people from your past. This is probably my favorite benefit of the site. LinkedIn is far more convenient than doing Google searches and easier to make contact with people you haven't been in touch with for years. Particularly helpful is the ability to search by company, like your former employers. I've located several people I had lost track of, and likewise several have found me. This feature alone makes LinkedIn worthwhile to me.
It's an easy way to increase your web presence. Whether you're on your own like me or working for someone, there are advantages to getting your name out there. These days "getting your name out" requires a presence on the internet. If someone searches for you on Google, having a LinkedIn profile increases your PageRank, meaning your name will occur higher in the listing. If your employees have profiles with links to your firm's website, that will help strengthen your firm's PageRank (albeit with greater visibility to recruiters who use LinkedIn extensively!).
There are some cool applications that can make your profile more valuable. I use Blog Link, which posts the titles and first few words of my recent blog entries on my profile. That, of course, helps draw more people to my blog. There's also Google Presentation for posting PowerPoint slides, Box.net for posting other kinds of files, and Huddle Workspaces for private, secure online workspaces for collaborating with others. Granted, most of us aren't ready for these or have other in-house options for doing the same things, but the possibilities are worth noting.
Most of us are probably reluctant to use two of LinkedIn's most touted features: Introductions and recommendations. These, of course, are common benefits of networking. But on LinkedIn, you generally have to ask for them and--let's be honest--most of us won't. I confess I've yet to ask for an introduction. Is asking someone to ask someone else to connect to you on LinkedIn really an introduction? And what do you do next, send an unsolicited email? I've asked for a couple recommendations and need to ask for others. How many technical professionals will ask clients for recommendations on LinkedIn? I doubt many, but you might avoid the need to ask simply by taking the lead in recommending your clients.
There is tremendous potential for collaboration, but little of it is going on relative to our business. LinkedIn has a great feature called Answers which allows you to post questions or answer others' questions on a variety of topics. Unfortunately, there's very little activity to be found here relevant to the A/E profession. I found a few questions specific to our business, but they had been posted months ago and had few responses. And most of the responses were from people outside our industry. That doesn't mean they aren't useful, but I'm sure most would rather hear from their peers.
To mingle with people in our industry, joining some related groups would seem to be the way to go. There are indeed several relevant groups available including ACEC (national and state chapters), AIA (national and local chapters), ASCE (same), SMPS (same), and others such as AEC Industry Networking Group and Civil Engineering Central Group. At first glance, these sound like promising opportunities to connect and share with peers. But my experience so far has been somewhat disappointing.
For example, the SMPS national group has almost 700 members. Sounds like a great place to ask questions and share information, right? Yet activity is relatively light and responses are few. If anyone in our industry would be drawn to online collaboration, I would expect marketers to be. In the other industry-related groups I've joined, activity is even slower. The most common posts for some are open requests for others to connect and people looking for jobs. That's not to say there isn't value in being part of these groups. People do get questions answered and some useful information is exchanged. Just not as much as I had hoped.
So should you join the LinkedIn community if you haven't already? Absolutely! And if you have a profile, most of you could probably benefit from adding some more content and connections. LinkedIn delivers benefits with relatively little effort. With more effort, we might eventually fulfill the promise the site has to offer. I will continue to post questions, provide answers, and broaden my web of connections. Hopefully, more of you will join in.