By Khalilah Starks

Ask any professional today if they have a LinkedIn account…the answer will probably be yes. If not, shame on them! LinkedIn is one of the most powerful networking sites that can lead to great career opportunities, yet many of us don’t use it to its full capability. Many times a professional will add connections to their account and stop there. And pretty much, that’s all that they’ll have…an account with a bunch of connections. It’s really like the equivalent of meeting a professional, getting their business card, and then never doing anything with it. This, unfortunately, is all too common.

What separates LinkedIn from other networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter is that the site was specifically designed for professional networking. You won’t find pictures of a person’s latest vacation or of the little one’s birthday celebration. Nope. This is all about the business. And, best of all, it’s free. You can always upgrade your account for a monthly fee to get extra benefits, but, today I’ll be focusing on the many benefits that you have as a free account holder as there are many! In addition to networking, you can think about LinkedIn as a great self-marketing tool that can help you create professional exposure while you’re actively seeking or passively considering career opportunities.

What’s on your mind? Similar to Facebook, LinkedIn gives you the ability to let your network know what you’re thinking and also gives them the opportunity to comment. So, go ahead and tell them what’s on your mind. But, be strategic. Pose a professional question to your network community that will start an intelligent, thought provoking conversation. If you’re working on a great initiative, tell your network community about it. And, if you’re actively looking for a job, don’t be afraid to tell your network that you’re looking for the next best thing. Believe it or not, professionals have landed jobs by doing just this. However, I wouldn’t suggest any open, job hunting declarations if you’re still employed and wouldn’t want your employer to find out. You should also log in daily to see what your connections have to say as well and be a great contributor to someone else’s discussion. It can get you noticed. I have personally seen network updates from my connections stating that they were looking to hire individuals for a particular position. So, pay attention to what others have to say!

Complete Your Profile. Make sure that your employment data is complete. Employment history should be complete with information about companies that you’ve worked for, dates of employment, and brief summaries of the positions that you’ve held. And, don’t forget about recommendations. Be sure to ask colleagues to provide recommendations on your profile to highlight your strengths and professional value. Why go through all the trouble? Well, recruiters have identified LinkedIn as one of the most often used sites to find candidates. So, you want to make sure that your profile gives them a great idea of your professional capabilities. I personally know of professionals who have had recruiters and hiring managers contact them based on their LinkedIn profile. Additionally, you’ll want your new connections to have a good grasp of your professional experience and skills as they can open the doors to exciting opportunities.

Continuously Build Your Network Connections. There are several techniques that you can employ when building your connections on LinkedIn. First, you should be adding every professional that you meet. LinkedIn has a very robust People You May Know function, which will make connection recommendations based on the information that you include in your profile (i.e. company information, schools you attended, etc.) and your current connections. You can do a school search to find old classmates who can be instrumental in landing new career opportunities – they may even be the one to hire you. Also, you can do a search by company to find old coworkers and bosses. Additionally, say that you have an interest in working for Microsoft and/or have identified a position that you would like to apply for within Microsoft. You can do a search on Microsoft to get a list of all professionals that have listed Microsoft on their profile (past and present). This is useful for a couple of reasons. One, you may find that one of your connections currently works or has worked for Microsoft in the past, and may still have personal contacts at the company. Two, you may find that the professionals that come up through your search are connected to personal connections in your network. In that case, you can simply ask your connection to make an introduction on your behalf. This is extremely helpful when applying to a position at a company as employee referrals are taken more seriously than blind resume submissions.

Join Groups. There are several alumni groups and professional organizations that you can join on LinkedIn. Join as many relevant groups as possible. As you join more groups, you will have more opportunities to add professionals to your network. However, you don’t want to be a silent member. Take part in discussions to increase your visibility. You’ll be remembered as the professional that had an intelligent comment or opinion. Look at group member profiles to see if there is someone who you would like to add to your network. If their connected to someone in your network, you can ask your connection to make an introduction on your behalf. Just yesterday, one of my LinkedIn group members posted a message stating that they were looking for interested applicants to fill a position that wasn’t even open yet. How wonderful is it to get the inside scoop early!

Search Jobs. LinkedIn’s job search engine has millions of jobs that you can search. This is different from the typical job search engine in that you can instantly see if you have connections at the company where the job is listed. And, of course, you can determine if someone in your network is connected to someone at the company. Remember, your connections can make introductions for you. Another impressive bonus is that you can sometimes see who has posted the position – it may be someone in your network or someone who is connected to someone in your network. LinkedIn will tell you!

Do you have a great way that you’ve used LinkedIn to enhance your networking and career potential? Please do share!