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RISMEDIA, July 11, 2007—(MCT)—Two Wednesdays ago, about 50 people gathered at O’Malley’s Tavern in North Raleigh, North Carolina.

They were men and women of all ages and ethnicities.

They worked in human resources, public relations, engineering, financial planning and career coaching.

They came together because of Chuck Hester and

LinkedIn is a social networking Web site similar to MySpace or Facebook, but geared toward working professionals. Instead of building a network of online friends, you build a network of business contacts. The LinkedIn Web site has been around since 2003, the brainchild of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reid Hoffman.

As more users in more industries join, LinkedIn is becoming an increasingly valuable networking tool.

Bosses are using it to find potential employees. Workers are using it to get new contacts in the companies they are interested in and to catch up with former co-workers.
And companies are adding it to their lists of places to check on the backgrounds of potential hires.

Hester, the director of communications for iContact, an e-mail marketing software company in Durham, got his job through LinkedIn.

“About a year ago, I was looking to make a change and looking for some ideas as to marketing folks,” he said. “I’d been on LinkedIn and only had about 30 contacts at the time. Long story short, I connected with the CEO of this company and he was getting ready to post the director of PR job. He said, ‘Let’s get together,’ and two weeks, later I had the job.”

Hester now has more than 1,200 contacts in his LinkedIn network and uses them for all sorts of things, not just business.

LinkedIn lets users “ask your network a question,” sending one message to all of or part of your network. That kind of query would take hours if you had to search through your e-mail address book, but it can be sent very quickly through LinkedIn.

“We’re looking to refinance our home mortgage, so I put out a feeler and several people had recommendations, so we’re sorting through that information,” he said. “My wife found a person to do the logo for her blog on the network.”

Hester said the most successful LinkedIn users are those who view it as a network of resources and not as a way to find a job.

“It’s more of a talent pool than anything else,” he said. “But when I need X, I can find a friend.”

It was the desire to meet the people in his network that prompted Hester to arrange the event at O’Malley’s.

“We were originally getting 10 people together, and now it’s like 50,” he said. “That’s OK, though. I am a pay-it-forward networker. I am in my dream job, and I’m not going anywhere. So I’m connecting folks who need help.”

There are 11 million LinkedIn users and more than 61,000 in the Raleigh-Durham area. As the site grows in popularity, people from more industries are signing up, expanding the potential for contacts.

In the Raleigh-Durham area, LinkedIn membership is growing at a rate of 15% a month, according to LinkedIn. That rate, the company says, is “slightly faster” than the overall rate of membership growth, probably because of the area’s universities and high-tech focus.

For some young professionals, it’s a way to participate in the phenomenon of social networking without feeling out of place on MySpace or Facebook, which are geared toward younger users, said David Chatham, account director for Raleigh communications firm Capstrat.

“MySpace to me is casual,” he said. “I’m ashamed to say that if you go on my MySpace page, you’ll see that I like big-hair rock groups. LinkedIn allows you to focus on your professional side.”

Scot Wingo says much of the appeal lies in the way your network expands as you add contacts.

Once you are linked to another user, you can see who else that person is linked with and use your mutual contact to get in touch with those people.

“It tells me how many degrees I am away from them,” said Wingo, CEO of ChannelAdvisor, a Morrisville company which makes software to help retailers sell their products on the Web. “It’s kind of like the Kevin Bacon thing.”

At the moment, Wingo has about 600 contacts in his network and said he uses his LinkedIn network as much as he uses e-mail.

The more contacts Wingo has access to, the broader his pool of potential employees.
Wingo has used his LinkedIn network to recruit about 10 employees for ChannelAdvisor. He said there are other benefits to knowing what’s happening in the careers of others.

“We’ll see things like three or four people will switch to a new job, and that could be a sign that a company is in trouble or about to be sold or something like that,” he said.

Contact list will update

LinkedIn also helps Wingo and other busy executives manage their contact lists because people update their own profiles.

“It takes it from being a Web site to being kind of your contacts on steroids,” he said. “I think of it as a productivity tool.

“You have all these contacts, and they’re just flat. If I have, like 800, the chance of me knowing where someone works, keeping it up-to-date and knowing how I came in contact with that person is pretty rare,” he said. “LinkedIn has all that.”

Once you sign up for LinkedIn, figuring out what to do can be intimidating.
Kirsten Topps is one of three recruiters for Resolvit Resources, an information technology consulting firm in Durham.

Topps signed up for LinkedIn two months ago and is still trying to figure out how to make the site work for her.

“Even though I’m an IT recruiter, I’m not the most technical person,” she said. “I would like someone to sit with me and take a real-world example and go through it.”

The site also can be time-consuming and maybe even a little addictive.

It uses bright graphics and progress meters to tell users how many contacts they have made. Building network stats can become a bit of a game.

For Michael Jones, vice president of marketing and business development at ChannelAdvisor, the compulsion is checking out other people’s contacts.

“I see a name hit my inbox, and I have to go see,” Jones said. “It shows you common connections you have.”

Jones said LinkedIn helps him find good employees and contacts.

“I would argue that it accelerates access into places,” Jones said. “If you find some company you’re interested in and you look at your network of contacts, you may be one person removed from the CFO, CEO or VP of that company.”

Reason to be discreet

People should be careful about advertising too openly that they are looking for a job, Hester said.

“Your boss could be on LinkedIn, too,” he said. “You should use it as a network of contacts. Some day down the line you might get laid off, and that’s when your network can help.”

In the end, LinkedIn should be a supplement to traditional networking, said Raleigh career coach Martin Brossman. Business is still all about relationships, even if you have 2,000 LinkedIn contacts.

“If I build a good relationship with you, you’ll want to know what widget I’m selling,” he said. “But you still need to build the relationship over time.”

Having a positive and professional Web site presence might be advisable, said John O’Connor, president of Career Pro of N.C. in Raleigh.

“You are your Google search results,” he said. “For any of us who are professionals, there’s something out there on you, whether it’s true or not.”

LinkedIn, he said, “does create an online image for you. It can get ranked pretty highly within the Google search results.”

And the potential to do that on LinkedIn will only grow, O’Connor said.

Professionals seem to come to LinkedIn in waves as people in one industry catch on to the idea and pass invitations to their friends.

“I think next we’ll see individual business owners starting on LinkedIn,” he said.

Copyright © 2007, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.