Guest Comment: why it pays to be networked

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Heard the buzz about social and professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, but not sure what all the fuss is about, or which ones (if any) warrant an investment of your time?

Before you sign up, it's important to understand the distinction between sites which are largely social in nature and those which are predominantly professional.

Whilst social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have been increasingly adopted as business tools, sites like LinkedIn, XING, Spoke and Plaxo continue to dominate the online professional landscape.

LinkedIn is increasingly becoming the most dominant of the professional networking sites in Australia. With over 40m registered members worldwide, spanning 200 countries and 170 industries, the tool provides almost limitless opportunities for both individuals and business to promote themselves and expand their networks online.

So how do you get the most out of LinkedIn?

Create an effective profile

The key to standing out online lies in spending time creating a dynamic and compelling professional profile. Keep in mind that your profile is not a cut and paste from your resume and that any words contained in your profile are fully searchable. Some useful tips for optimising your profile include:

· Summary - include a short bio outlining your career history and current status.

· Specialties - differentiate yourself by including keywords or phrases which cover your key skills or areas of specialisation. This will improve your chances of being found in search results.

· Experience - detail your employment history but keep it high-level, specific and relevant to your industry or area of interest. If you are currently unemployed list your current position as "open to new opportunities".

· Education - if you have specific qualifications (e.g. MBA, CPA, CFP) include them.

· Add a photo - totally optional but a professional headshot helps put a face to the name and is very helpful when meeting someone for the first time.

· Websites - provide a link to your company website or blog.

· Contact Settings - let your connections know what you wish to be contacted for (e.g. career opportunities, new ventures, getting back in touch).

· Recommendations - seek endorsements from trusted contacts. These are effectively a mini-reference from people you've worked with.

· Public Profile URL - making your profile public will publish it to the web so people outside your LinkedIn network can find you. Users can manage how much of their LinkedIn profile is viewable via search engine searches.

Expand your network

LinkedIn is a great way to manage your existing business contacts so once your profile is up to date, start inviting trusted contacts to join your network. Your contacts will have connections and they in turn also have connections. Your network can grow exponentially simply by adding a few new connections a week.

Use the LinkedIn "people search" function to find new business contacts. If you are currently looking for work, search for recruiters who specialise in your area of interest and look to connect with them. Search and recruitment firms are increasingly utilising professional networking sites such as LinkedIn to source talent.

LinkedIn Groups are also a great way to raise your profile and expand your network organically. There are literally thousands of special interest groups by region, profession, industry, company, alumni, professional associations, conferences, colleges and universities. Many of these groups post updates on topical issues, and have Q&As and job listings. Once you join a group, its members become part of your immediate network. Alternatively start a group of your own. You can be a member of up to 50 groups.

Business development, sales and marketing

Use LinkedIn's search function to undertake your own market research to identify potential customers and build relationships with new contacts. If meeting someone for the first time, do your research so you know a bit about the person before you meet.

Job search

Some companies and recruiters are using LinkedIn's job section to advertise roles. Users can search for jobs by keyword and location and apply directly via LinkedIn.

Online professional networking sites have the potential to deliver a wide array of benefits, but the challenge for users lies in knowing how to effectively leverage these sites. Those who can do so successfully will undoubtedly sustain their competitive edge.

Nicole Cain is the research manager at Profusion Group, a banking and wealth management search and recruitment firm in Sydney.

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