Illustration: Michael Rubin

The Forge Guide to Networking

LinkedIn Can Actually Be Helpful, If You Use It Right

A guide to the networking site everyone loves to hate

OfOf all the social-media platforms, LinkedIn might be the one whose purpose is the most misunderstood. Facebook, despite its many alarming flaws, is still the go-to corner of the internet for announcements featuring babies and engagement rings. Instagram is the place to humblebrag, with envy-inducing shots of vacations and elaborate meals. Twitter, for most people, is just for jokes and article recommendations.

LinkedIn, by contrast, is where you go to… well, there’s a reason “the world’s largest professional network” is the butt of so many jokes. It’s where people go to stretch the limits of the word “hobby” (you snorkeled once, it counts!), to self-seriously detail the duties of college internships held decades ago, and to connect — well, “connect” — with anyone they’ve ever said “hello” to.

“Your childhood friend whom you no longer speak to because he told your classmates about the Barbie he saw in your room? Add him,” Colin Stokes wrote in a New Yorker piece mocking the sort of earnestness that runs rampant on the site. “The porn-site administrator whom you had to email to sort out your subscription? Hey, he might be a valuable professional connection, you never know.”

That’s the double bind of LinkedIn: It’s easy to make fun of and hard to use well, but at the same time, it’s quietly essential. If you’re passively or actively looking for a job, not being on LinkedIn at all is somewhere between odd and a red flag.

“I think being a person in the world with a job is a good enough reason to have a LinkedIn,” says Viveka von Rosen, author of LinkedIn: 101 Ways to Rock Your Personal Brand and founder of the consultancy LinkedIn to Business. But your profile won’t do you any good if you just sign up and let it languish — or fall victim to the silly mistakes that make so many people roll their eyes at the site. Not all LinkedIn networking is good networking. These tips are designed to help you attract the right kind of attention.

Make sure you look good

A LinkedIn page is a first impression that you can make at any time, without even being aware that you’ve made it — which means you need to put some serious thought into your profile photo.

You can think of a professional headshot as the online version of dressing for the job you want, says Larisa Courtien, who often uses LinkedIn for hiring as the founder of We Heart Branding, a digital-content and business-management company for solo entrepreneurs, and the client services director of the start-up HeyMama. “I think it can give some things away,” she says. “If someone has a professional headshot, they tend to have a little more seniority, or at least seem like they do.”

To project a “hire-me” image, follow a few simple guidelines. “You want to be smiling and you want to be looking right at the camera,” von Rosen says, and use as plain a background as possible. You should also skip the sunglasses and wild accessories, and the photo that looks like you cropped out whomever was standing next to you. Pick a shot you feel good about, but don’t go crazy with the filters. “It needs to look like you, so when you do meet a client face-to-face there’s not a huge disconnect,” von Rosen says.

Seize the moment

It’s probably a good thing that Facebook and Instagram don’t allow you to see who’s viewed your profile, or vice versa. (Imagine the implications for ex-stalking.) But on LinkedIn, von Rosen says, that’s an undervalued feature, one that can be hugely helpful if you act on notifications quickly.

“If someone views your profile or your content, that’s a trigger,” she says. “That’s when you reach out, and start to lay the groundwork. Essentially, you say, ‘Hey, I noticed you viewed my profile, let’s connect.’” (It’s worth noting that this feature is only available to users who pay for LinkedIn Premium.)

But using the platform effectively is about more than just building your network. There’s maintenance required, which means you should always be looking for opportunities to engage. “I like to be commenting and liking and actually spending time on LinkedIn,” Courtien says. I’m the person who’s going to reach out and congratulate you when you’ve won an award or you’re doing a speaker series. It’s about continuing to keep up with people; that’s how you build relationships.”

Learn to sell

Maybe you’re not trying to get hired right now, but you’re using LinkedIn to find buyers for your product or clients for your business. Maybe you’re just keeping an eye toward the future and want to get your name into the brains of more people in your field. Whatever your goal, think of LinkedIn as an exercise in salesmanship, where you’re the product you’re trying to sell.

Von Rosen counsels her clients to adopt a tactic based on the acronym PVC: personalize, value, call to action. First, tailor all your messages to the audience you’re trying to reach, whether you’re sending a private note or crafting a public post. “Don’t try to automate the process,” she says “Customize, and make the person realize you’ve taken some time to reach their profile.” There’s nothing like a generic, nameless “Hi there” opener to ensure a message gets ignored.

Second, make sure that you’re consistently adding clear value to your network. “You want to position yourself as someone helpful and useful,” she says. “Just sharing content can massively increase your visibility, and it starts to position you as a trusted advisor and align you with the expertise of the content you’re sharing. You don’t have to be an industry influencer or an author; you just have to share useful stuff.”

And third, make sure that every message you send contains a clear call to action. No one really knows what to do with a “Just wanted to say hello!,” and those kinds of squishy asks are easily forgotten. Instead, cut out the guesswork and ask for what you really want: an introduction to someone they know, a chance to pitch your services, or contact information for a colleague.

Use the right spin

Keep the sales approach in mind as you update your profile. Rather than just listing where you’ve worked and what you’ve accomplished, frame it in terms of how you helped your last company. “A buyer-centric profile speaks not so much about your products and services, but to your buyers’ points of pain and the benefits of working with you,” von Rosen says. “People want to see how you can be a value to them; our little saying is, ‘make your profile a resource, not a resume.’”

A few years ago, Katy Read, a journalist at the Star Tribune, interviewed LinkedIn consultant Anne Pryor, who had some suggestions for changes to Read’s profile. “My headline said, ‘Journalist, Essayist, Copywriter,’” Read recalls, but “Anne pointed out that, on LinkedIn, there’s really no such thing as an ‘essayist.’ If you type that in, nothing comes up. If you type in ‘creative nonfiction,’ though, some things do.”

Based on Pryor’s advice, Read also adjusted the content underneath her profile’s headline. “I had a resume which I guess was kind of old-school, with full sentences and paragraphs. [Pryor] had me make it longer, with more details, but in the form of short bullet points.” The results were positive: Read says she had several recruiters reach out to her with opportunities, one of which turned into a lucrative short-term gig.

Move offline — but slowly

Being proficient in LinkedIn can help open a lot of doors, von Rosen says, but ultimately, it’s no substitute for a more personal, real-world interaction. Once you’ve laid the necessary with a potential new client, or someone you hope will become your next boss, it’s time to take things off the platform.

Just be careful not to do it too soon. “You don’t want to sound desperate, like, ‘Hey, let’s connect, and by the way, will you hire me?’ You need to take the time to set up that regular cadence,” von Rosen says. “But once you feel like you know them, and they know you, you can make the big ask: ‘I’d love to jump on the phone and talk about this.’” You’ll know for sure that you’re using LinkedIn right when your relationship moves away from it.

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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