LinkedIn is an enigma. It now has some 260 million users, and it’s a daily routine for millions of ambitious professionals. But millions of others reluctantly create profiles, feel guilty for not having a stronger profile, and wonder, “Does anybody really get a better job through this thing anyway?”
Some do, but that’s not really the point. The point is that you need to take control of your personal and professional branding on the Internet.
For most people, their LinkedIn profile isn’t just their online resume, it’s a window into their existence. It allows others to quickly find out about your background, your competence, your network–and, above all, your sense of self.
So what does this mean for you? It means you’re being judged—not just by a prospective employer, but by your current boss, by potential friends and allies, by potential love interests, and probably by the NSA.
And increasingly, people are sniffing out your Klout score and other measures of your overall social media presence, and judging accordingly.
[Don’t be afraid that having a comprehensive LinkedIn profile will freak out your boss or signal that you’re desperate to leave. My Forbes colleague William Arruda recently made the case that an organization should want every employee to have a strong LinkedIn profile, for the sake of its own branding.]
Of course, you don’t have to be on LinkedIn. And you might as well not be on LinkedIn if you’re going to do it poorly. But if you’re going to LinkOut, be sure to find other ways to maximize your online profile. For instance, check out this terrific About.me page by tech personality Veronica Belmont, which registers higher in online searches than her LinkedIn profile. Or be sure to beef up your Google profile.
Based on an informal poll of some savvy and successful colleagues, here’s a quick assessment of how you’re being judged:
A complete lack of a LinkedIn profile sends a mixed signal. It may suggest, “I’m so successful and happy at my job that I don’t even notice that there’s a world out there.” Or it could signal that you’re technologically illiterate. That’s all the more reason to find a good alternative if you’re not going use LinkedIn itself.
Having a profile but not posting a photo sends a negative message.It may signal that you’re unprofessional or insecure about yourself–or that you’re mainly lurking on the network rather than connecting.
By contrast, a complete profile speaks volumes. “I judge professionalism by profile completeness,” says Kathleen Kilian Wainscott, a proposal writer and presentation coach at Deloitte. “That includes a nice headshot and a full listing of jobs and education for someone in corporate America. Or a cropped photo and one-liners for jobs for freelancers or creative types. Someone just out of college who has a professional photo and completed profile looks like an up-and-comer.”
The wrong picture sends the wrong message. Too often, profile pictures look as though they were taken at a club or rave or beach rather than a studio or professional environment. We can see the top of the umbrella of the mai tai that you’re holding, or we can see that you cropped out some drunken friends. You’re not inspiring us to take you seriously as a dedicated professional.
No one wants to see you brag. “A profile headline in which they call themselves a ‘guru’ or ‘visionary’ is a negative,” says Derek Lazzaro, a tech lawyer in Los Angeles. “It seems arrogant and it’s not really descriptive.”
Adds Jeremy Pepper, a Los Angeles-based media strategist, “There are no gurus, there are no visionaries, and we’re rarely in a paradigm shift.”
Too few connections send a bad message. “A small number of connections is also a negative,” Lazzaro adds. I’d agree, and would encourage a user to get to triple figures in connections as quickly as is reasonably possible.
500+ connections doesn’t necessarily impress people—especially if you look like you’re blindly chasing connections. You don’t have to approach only people you know. But you better not just be randomly trying to connect with established people in your field.
“If I don’t know you, don’t just send me the generic ‘I’d like to connect with you’ message,” one marketing executive in Silicon Valley tells me. “Say why you are trying to connect with me. Just a simple, custom sentence or two. I always decline random people who use the generic message.”
“I’m not impressed by people who out of the blue ask me to connect,” says Rachael Hand, a real estate broker in northern California. “I don’t know them, and I’m not connected to them even on a level 3. If you want to connect, I’ll probably say yes, but tell me why. Where’s Kevin Bacon when you need him?”
Don’t bother endorsing people for skills that you know nothing about. LinkedIn makes it far too easy to endorse someone, with one click, for a range of skills that they may or may not have. But meaningless endorsement of your connections can result in a loss of credibility. “I have people who have endorsed me for things I never did during the time I worked with them,” says Karey Rees, a management consultant in the Dallas area.
Communications consultant Susan Wampler says it’s unhelpful when the endorsement is for a kind of work that your connection wants to pivot away from. “I am constantly being endorsed for the one type of communications work I do not do,” she says.
Don’t be boring and stodgy.
“I was brought in to counsel an executive at a large company on his LinkedIn profile,” Pepper says. “The key thing was to be human.” He says this involved using a photo that was professional yet not stuffily corporate, making the job descriptions more interesting, and highlighting charitable activities.
Remember, you don’t have to do LinkedIn. But in this day and age, you do have to do something–and do it well. As Brian Zisk, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur jokes, “If someone does not have a fleshed out online profile, it’s hard for us to believe that they actually exist.”