How to use LinkedIn effectively

Because LinkedIn was developed specifically for business, etiquette on LinkedIn tends to be a little bit more formal than on other social networking sites. If you mind your manners, though, LinkedIn can be an interactive Rolodex, networking site, and source of business-specific information all rolled into one.

Use a real photo.

Using a photo of yourself will make it easier for people to find you on LinkedIn, particularly people you’ve only met briefly. More importantly, a photo will make it easier for those people to recognize you in the future. I like photos that are casual because they tell me more about you, but use good judgment. LinkedIn is not the place for a photo snapped at a party, a shot of you holding your cat Fluffy, or an artsy image that only shows half of your face.

Keep your updates professional.

Updating your status on LinkedIn keeps your contacts in the loop on what you’re up to. That’s great, as long as your updates are interesting and relevant to your professional life. Are you putting together a major event for your organization? By all means, tell people about it. Throwing down at the beach this weekend? Save that for Facebook, Twitter, or other less formal platforms. On a similar note, don’t use Twitter or Facebook to auto-update your LinkedIn status. Status updates like “@joeschmoe Go Red Sox!” look strange on LinkedIn and might make me think you don’t really understand the purpose of LinkedIn.

Be honest and interesting.

Your profile is public, which means that colleagues can see it. They know what you’re really up to, so make sure your profile jives with reality. That said, your LinkedIn profile doesn’t have to be boring or just a straight copy of your job description. Describe your accomplishments and goals. Use vivid language. Write in the first person. Talk about your accomplishments outside work, too. If you just finished your first marathon, great! That tells me that you not only have a life outside work, but that you’re determined. It might also give me a conversation starter.

Think about what information you’re comfortable sharing.

Nonprofiteer by day, Hell’s Angel by night? If it’s something you wouldn’t want your present or future colleagues to know, don’t share it on LinkedIn. Similarly, unless they’re relevant to your work, your religious affiliations and political views are probably also best left off your profile.

Think about who you want to connect with.

Some people only accept invitations from people they know and trust. Other people only connect with people they’ve met in person and in a professional context. And others, like Chris Brogan, view LinkedIn as a way to connect with both people they know and with people they’ve interacted with online, but have never met in person. Whatever you decide, remember that it’s OK to say no to an invitation. If you do decline an invitation, consider sending the person a polite note explaining why you’ve decided not to accept and invite him/her to connect with you through another channel, like Twitter. If you’d rather not let the person know you’ve declined, you can click “Archive” on the invitation and they won’t receive an update.

Only invite people to connect if you have some sort of shared history. If you’ve never met or interacted with someone, consider following him/her on Twitter or another network that is less formal than LinkedIn. Just met someone at a conference? By all means, reach out on LinkedIn. But wait a day or so before you do. A successful entrepreneur I know says how offputting it can be to receive an invitation to connect on LinkedIn within 15 minutes of meeting a person for the first time.

Finally, if others decline to connect with you, don’t be offended. They may simply have a different policy about who they’re willing to connect with on LinkedIn.

Stay in touch.

People will be much more responsive to requests for recommendations, connections, and information if you’ve been in regular contact than if you only reach out when you need something.

Offer help.

Join groups that are of interest to you and listen to the discussions. Once you have a feel for the vibe of the discussion, chime in if you have something to add.

Offer to write recommendations for people you’ve worked with, but only if you can honestly speak to the person’s specific skills and attributes. It’s much more helpful to know that someone is great at event planning and grew a specific event’s attendance by 50 percent than to know that the person is “terrific.”

Offer to connect people, but only if you genuinely think it will be a valuable connection for both parties.

Be courteous when asking for help.

One of my colleagues was asked by her cousin to write a recommendation for her, despite the fact that they’d never worked together. When my colleague politely declined, her cousin got upset. Not only did the cousin put my colleague in an uncomfortable situation by asking for a recommendation, but, by not handling the refusal graciously, she ruined the chances that my colleague would be willing to help her with her job search in other ways.

Don’t spam.

It’s OK to mention an upcoming event in a group discussion if it’s relevant to the group and something you think members would be interested in. It’s not okay to relentlessly promote your organization, products, or services.

Don’t ask everyone you know to write you recommendations; focus on those who have worked closely with you.

Write a personal note when you invite someone to connect rather than just sending the default message.

Get feedback.

Ask someone you trust to look over your LinkedIn profile and activity and to give you some suggestions on how you could be more effective.

Follow up.

If someone helps you, whether it’s by writing you a recommendation, connecting you with someone, or sharing information with you, thank him/her. If someone asks you a question, respond in a timely fashion.

Happy networking!