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Innovation economy

Make better introductions

LinkedIn can be a valuable networking tool - but are you maximizing its potential?

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Staff / September 6, 2009

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Lee Hower knows a thing or two about using LinkedIn.

As a venture capitalist at Providence-based Point Judith Capital, Hower often uses the business networking site to check references on entrepreneurs whose companies he is considering as potential investments. Oh, and Hower was also part of the founding team of LinkedIn, reporting directly to the chief executive.

Still, when Hower met with David Gowel, he admits he learned a few new tips and tricks. Gowel, a former Army Ranger who is also a kind of Jedi knight of LinkedIn, is one of two local consultants who have started offering training sessions to help people discover the site’s hidden features and make the most of its more obvious ones.

“LinkedIn is like a Swiss Army knife with a thousand blades,’’ Gowel says. “There are lots of intelligent, Internet-savvy people who don’t know how to use it.’’

I asked Gowel and Patrick O’Malley, a Medford-based consultant and speaker, for their best tips on using the site - whether you are looking for a job, trying to generate new business, researching competitors, or simply establishing connections on the site that may help you somewhere down the road. Here are their top 10 recommendations:

Spell your name wrong. If someone tries to find you on LinkedIn but misspells your name, they’re likely out of luck. O’Malley suggests adding common misspellings in the “Summary’’ field of your profile. Taking his advice, I added “Kirzner,’’ “Kersner,’’ “Kirshner,’’ and other manglings of my last name - and found that I was instantly more findable on the site.

Get recommended. Having three or more people vouch for your work on the site is smart, Gowel says. (He has 18 recommendations.) One approach is to e-mail current and former colleagues and ask (Gowel says you might even send a draft of a recommendation to make it easier for them). But if you write an unsolicited recommendation for someone else on the site, when they approve it so that it appears on their profile, LinkedIn will ask them if they want to return the favor. “It’s almost the guilt approach,’’ Gowel says. “And it works.’’

Take advantage of the toolbars. If you’re in the job market, O’Malley advises getting the free LinkedIn Browser Toolbar (available at the bottom of any LinkedIn page, to the right of the “Tools’’ heading). “If you go to job-hunting sites like Craigslist, CareerBuilder, or Monster and you’re looking at a job at a specific company, the toolbar tells you the number of people in your network who work at that company,’’ O’Malley says. “You can also see lists of those people’’ who might be willing to help call attention to your resume once you’ve sent it in.

Write a compelling headline. The “headline’’ field is the text that shows up right underneath your name on your profile page; it also shows up in lists of search results on LinkedIn. You’re limited to 120 characters. “It shouldn’t just be your title, but the 10 or 12 words that really explain what you do,’’ O’Malley says. “VP of marketing with extensive experience launching new consumer products for Mattel, Disney, and Graco’’ is much better than just “VP of marketing,’’ for instance. If you’re seeking employment or looking for consulting projects, O’Malley says that’s worth mentioning in your headline, since it will jump out at recruiters, human resources executives, and prospective clients.

List everything. Gowel suggests listing not only all of the companies you’ve worked for, but also internships and summer jobs, as well as clubs and professional associations where you’ve been an officer or an active member. “That way, LinkedIn will show you all the colleagues and other people who’ve listed those companies and organizations in their profiles, so you can add them as connections,’’ he says. But Gowel advises against adding anyone as a connection whom you haven’t actually met. If five people tell the site that you’ve tried to connect without really knowing them, you wind up on a blacklist - and it becomes much harder to make new connections.

LinkedIn can replace business cards. If you meet someone at a conference or networking event and make a connection with them on LinkedIn, you may not want to hold onto their paper business card. LinkedIn automatically gives you access to their current e-mail address, but you can also add other contact information such as their mailing address, phone number, or birthday. On the person’s profile page, just click “View/edit contact info’’ in the right-hand column, underneath where the person’s e-mail address appears.

Automated searches. If you’re interested in tracking people being hired by a given company - or leaving it - you can have LinkedIn do a search weekly or monthly and e-mail the results to you, Gowel says. After you’ve done a search (regular or advanced), just click the link that says “Save this search.’’

Stealthy vs. public prowling. There may be some circumstances when you want other LinkedIn users to know you’ve been scouting their profiles, and others where you’d rather be incognito. Click “Account and Settings’’ in the upper right corner of most pages, then under “Privacy Settings’’ choose “Profile Views’’ and make your selection.

LinkedIn isn’t Facebook. Don’t make your profile too personal or chirpy. LinkedIn is probably not the place to list your favorite pizza toppings or lines from “Spinal Tap.’’

Build your network now. O’Malley says that the best time to expand your LinkedIn network is while you have a job - not once you’re laid off. “When you walk out of a company, you may not have access to your e-mail account and that whole collection of contacts - and that makes it much tougher to build out your network on LinkedIn,’’ he says.

“Being a more effective networker should be a constant, continuous thing,’’ says Hower, the former LinkedIn executive and venture capitalist. “It’s about building relationships and keeping track of people - not just asking people for favors when you are looking for a job, trying to make a sale, or raising money for your company.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.