I'm a big fan of the Answers tab on LinkedIn. Answer a question posed by the peanut gallery and you just might impress a potential employer or client with your customer service, consumer electronics or guerilla marketing expertise. Ask a question of your contacts or the LinkedIn community at large (the choice is yours) and you just might get the resume makeover or salary negotiation tip of the century. Since nobody likes an infomercial, be sure you're helping others as much as you're helping and promoting yourself in the Answers forum. Don't be a mooch.
LinkedIn is home to 160,000 companies you can run searches on. Look one of them up and you can find all sorts of useful information, from fresh job listings and accessible HR contacts to new hires (people whose brains you can pick) to people in your extended network who work there (people you a mutual contact can introduce you to via LinkedIn).
You can also view profiles of rising stars with positions you covet to track their career trajectories: What job titles did they hold and companies did they work for before assuming their current positions? Maybe you can't get into the hot shot companies they work for now, but you can target the smaller companies they came from. You can also join any relevant professional groups they belong to on LinkedIn and learn by osmosis.
LinkedIn makes it easy for you to collect and display the testimonials of colleagues, customers, managers and direct reports who know and love you -- right in your profile. You simply fill out a box asking your contact to endorse you, and the contact sends back a reply saying how fantastic you are to work with. Voila! -- instant referral.
A couple of tips for referral seekers from someone who's been on the receiving end of more unwarranted requests for referrals than she can count: Don't ask someone who's never worked with you or never seen a sample of your work for a referral. While your mother might be willing to vouch for your skills, most self-respecting professionals won't. Also, help the person doing the referring by telling him or her what type of job you're looking for and what skills you'd like the person to highlight. That way, you'll get the most relevant referral you can.
This isn't MySpace, where whoever has the most "friends" gets on Page Six or Entertainment Tonight. That's why the highest number of contacts LinkedIn will display in your profile is 500. Don't be a contact whore; only reach out to folks you actually know. And when you do reach out to someone, send a personalized message instead of the generic "I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn" message that the site provides.
By the same token, if someone asks you to be their contact and you have no idea who they are or don't care to include them in your digital Rolodex, there's nothing wrong with hitting delete. Remember, your contacts may approach you for favors, recommendations or introductions to your other contacts later. Choose them wisely.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Join LinkedIn now, even if you have a job to go to every week. If you get laid off, you'll be glad you don't have to scramble to piece together an entire network of professionals willing to go to bat for you.