Please excuse the aggressive title, but if you are a professional there are many reasons why you at least need to have a presence on LinkedIn and should utilize the platform as your primary social networking tool.
First some background on myself. Like most of you, I received an invite from someone that I don't even remember now, but I signed up on a day in 2004 and really didn't do anything with the site except for accepting invites from people that I knew who invited me. That all changed when in 2008, after building my career in Asia and looking for a job for the first time in the US without an established network, I took the plunge and decided to use LinkedIn as my primary networking tool. I soon became a heavy user and increased my contacts from the then 100+ to the now 11,500+.
As mentioned above, the primary impetus for me to start utilizing LinkedIn on a daily basis was because of my first job search in several years. After looking for a job back in the US without the same type of local network that my American peers enjoyed made it a challenging time to attack the “hidden job market” (which we all know is where 70% of the jobs are "found" or "created"). I realized I needed to be a better networker, and thus my LinkedIn journey began.
As I started becoming a heavy user, connecting to people beyond my immediate group of friends and co-workers, as well as actively reaching out to recruiters, I started to become the “go to” person for LinkedIn in my close network of family and friends. Many acquaintances had not heard of or did not understand LinkedIn in the same depth that I did. I could look at the official LinkedIn Q&A sections and begin answering questions on using LinkedIn to others. Finally, as I built out my network to encompass thousands of direct connections, I would offer to help anyone if they had a question on LinkedIn. Many people seemed to find value in what I had to said, and thus, I created my own blog on the subject (http://linkedinquestions.wordpress.com) and am even in the process of writing a book on the subject (E-Mail me [nealschaffer at gmail dot com] if you would like to be notified when it is published or are interested in collaborating).
Hopefully this gives you enough background on myself and why I am uniquely qualified to tell you why you need to be on LinkedIn. But LinkedIn is not just about looking for a job, and I continued to extensively use it after finding my job. So why do you need a presence on the site?
1) Getting Back in Touch
Are you one of the many members of classmates.com? Do you use it to keep in touch with people from your past school days? Think of LinkedIn as an extension of that, with the ability of directly connecting you (without additional costs to send E-Mails or other restrictions that classmates.com has) to not only former classmates but also former colleagues. After you have graduated from college more and more people in your network are professionals, not classmates, so LinkedIn fills this gap nicely. This is the primary reason that I find most executives have a presence on LinkedIn, and this is a unique attribute to LinkedIn that no other social networking site at the present has.
2) Being Found
Once you have a presence on LinkedIn, just as you can find your former colleagues, they can also find you. Once you fill in your profile, you are added to the database of more than 30 million users worldwide, and LinkedIn has excellent search tools to allow people to be able to easily find you. Being found is also important if you are in transition or thinking of a new job, but more on that angle below.
3) Acquire Expertise
LinkedIn has many groups that are open for professionals to join, and by joining these groups you not only get potential access to directly contacting experts in your industry, you can also join in group discussions and read group news that are specific to your industry. I believe that most industries are covered, and the largest of these groups have anywhere from a few thousand to one hundred thousand members! I know of executives who have landed new jobs in new markets who use these groups to acquire new expertise. On the other hand, LinkedIn also provides a great Q&A functionality that you can use to ask the network of 30 million professionals any question you'd like. I have answered questions on "What is the best CRM?" as well as asked questions on "What Websites Do You Recommend to Self-Publish My Book?" The answers section is completely searchable, so you can really learn a lot and feel comfortable knowing that it is coming from real professionals, not just your standard Internet message board.
4) Career Growth
I don't want to be blunt in titling this "Looking for a Job", because even if you are not looking for a job, a network should be your insurance for your future career growth. Companies are organic entities whose needs change and do not and cannot promise you a guarantee that your job will be there 10 years from now, next year, or even next month. That is why you need to be on LinkedIn so that you can both find potential companies and recruiters as well as be found by them. Even if you are happy in your job, it can't hurt to have a minimal profile on LinkedIn and receive contacts from recruiters in your industry or specialty who may be able to help you out in the future, can it? LinkedIn is free career insurance!
5) Sales & Marketing
One thing I would like to make clear is that LinkedIn is not a tool to sell your product on, and you will be removed from LinkedIn should you decide to spam people or message boards with adverts. That being said, I have used LinkedIn from a sales & marketing prospective to a) find potential customers, b) map out their organizations, c) request introductions inside the organizations, d) look for potential partners or distributors, and e) look for potential service providers. In fact, I hired a translation service because I found them on LinkedIn! Why start from scratch looking for a service provider when you can utilize a network of real professionals to help you find them? Which leads me to...
6) Your Trusted Network of Advisors
I have an older brother (well, I have four of them) who I trust in terms of asking for help in mapping out and executing on my professional goals. He once asked me, "Neal, do you have a trusted network of advisors?" In other words, for anything in life, do you have a trusted person you can ask for advice on? Do you have a financial advisor? A legal advisor? A career coach? A reliable web marketing adviseor? etc. These advisors (you don't necessarily have to pay for their services if they are in your tight network) are essential in not only bouncing ideas off of them for your professional career, but can even help you out on personal affairs. I have met many in my trusted network through LinkedIn, followed up by actual one-to-one meetings with them at a Starbucks over a cup of latte (I'm a tall soy latte person for all of you marketers out there).
I recently read a book about how to find a job which said that if you meet 100 people and meet 100 people that they introduce to you, you will most definitely be able to find a job. I have not tried out this exercise, but the whole idea is that you never know how someone, or someone that they know, may be able to help you out when you need it. I openly connect with anyone on LinkedIn because you never know how you can help them or vice-versa. Case in point: I recently accepted an invite from someone who was interested in relocating to Asia and looking for job advice. Six months later when I was looking for advice from him, he was able to guarantee an interview from the lead recruiter of a very large enterprise software company. This could not have happened if a) we never connected and b) I did not offer to help him out.
The real key to all of the above is to become an open networker, which in essence is having the attitude that whenever you help people out it will return to you as you increase your bank account of karma. If you do not believe this and start heavily contacting people without offering to help them out, you may not be as successful on your LinkedIn journey. But if you are helpful to others even when you don't need to be, believe me, it will make it easier for people to respond to you and to ask them for advice when you really need it.
I hope that I have opened your eyes if you are not currently on LinkedIn, and if you are on LinkedIn I hope I have provided you advice as to how you can become a more effective user of the platform to meet your own objective. I am an open networker, so please feel free to go to my profile (www.linkedin.com/in/nealschaffer) and send me an invite. I also welcome your comments as I am always a humble learner in this game of life...