Why Use LinkedIn?

178312_treasure_wo_background.jpgIn his New York Times blog, David Pogue today posed the following question:

OK, this is going to sound incredibly naïve. But could somebody tell me the point of LinkedIn?

What I don’t understand is: If somebody knows me well enough to e-mail me with an invitation to join, why doesn’t he just e-mail me directly with whatever his problem or offer is?

When you use the tool on a regular basis to actually get business done, it’s easy to forget that this is a commonly-held perception of LinkedIn. And the dozens of comments on his blog post are further evidence. Out of 68 replies as of the time of this writing, roughly 2/3 are positive about LinkedIn and 1/3 echoed David’s sentiment. Let’s hope that David and some of that other 1/3 read some of the other replies and take them to heart.

My regular readers can skip this paragraph, but if you’re new here, this is really valuable. For the past year or so I’ve also been collecting stories of how people are using LinkedIn to accomplish specific business tasks. I also ran a group blogging project on the topic. You can see the whole compilation at 80+ Smart Ways to Use LinkedIn. I promise you, no matter how experienced you think you are at using LinkedIn, there’s something there you haven’t thought of.

But let’s talk in more general terms… what, fundamentally, is the unique capability of LinkedIn? What makes it different from your contact management software? Or from other social networking sites?

Its users have adapted LinkedIn for all kinds of uses, but fundamentally, LinkedIn addresses three basic issues significantly differently than other solutions:

  1. People search. Web search engines are lousy at searching for people. Sure, there are automated biography tools like ZoomInfo which are useful, but they have challenges with people like me who have a common name, and there’s often a lot of “noise” there compared to “signal” — not nearly as concise and organized as a properly done LinkedIn profile. And in your own contact database, you only have the limited amount of data obtained (and recorded) through your interaction with them. Sure, if I know your e-mail address, I can contact you. But what most people can’t do with their contact database is answer a question like: “Who do I know who used to work for one of the big accounting firms?” Or maybe: “Do any of my friends have a background in musical theater that maybe I don’t know about?” No matter how well you think you know people, you don’t know them as well as they know themselves. I don’t know of any other solution that does this as well as LinkedIn.
  2. Keeping in touch. People change jobs these days like some people change clothes, and it becomes hard to keep track of people who are genuinely friends or business associates, but that you’re not in contact with on a regular basis. Every time you change jobs or e-mail addresses, do you contact every single person you know and tell them? And even if you do, do you think they all update it in their contact database? Once you’re connected on LinkedIn, you no longer have to keep track of that data — the person whose data it is now keeps it up-to-date, and you’ll always know how to reach them. For the millions of LinkedIn users, that’s also a huge collective savings in data maintenance. Rather than trying to keep track of several hundred people’s contact information, current employer, etc., now they all keep it up-to-date for you, and all you have to keep up-to-date is your own information.
  3. Your extended network. LinkedIn’s core value proposition is simply this: the ability to answer the question, “Who do I know who knows and can recommend somebody that…” …works at XYZ company? …is an expert in widgets? …is a good lawyer specializing in whatever my problem is? Without LinkedIn, how do you do this? You either a) pick the most likely people in your network to know that kind of person, but you may still miss them because so often those connections aren’t necessarily obvious; or b) you contact everybody you know, which starts wearing thin if you do it a lot, since 99% of the people you ask won’t be able to help. LinkedIn makes it so that you only ask the people who are likely to be able to help. It’s like being able to search not only your own contact database, but those of your friends, and their friends, and then ask for the introduction when you find the right person.I hope that helps, and I’m happy to answer any further questions anyone may have about LinkedIn.

There are dozens of ways to apply these to specific applications, but I think these three core capabilities make LinkedIn useful in ways that no other tool currently can match.

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