It's Not Just Who You Know

The rise of the "professional Web" lets you collect colleagues like Pez dispensers. Resist the urge.

Amid all the chatter about user-generated content and Web 2.0, another class of Web services has been quietly gaining momentum. Call it the "professional Web": online services designed explicitly to help you manage your career and do your job better. LinkedIn, for one, has been adding 120,000-plus members a week and now has almost 10 million total. Users of Jigsaw have compiled more than 5.3 million business contacts, adding 12,000 a day.

Right now, the most obvious value that these services provide is the opportunity to own (and control) your online identity. LinkedIn, as well as the services Ziggs and ZoomInfo, let you create a profile for free. (ZoomInfo also proactively aggregates Web info about professionals--34 million so far--and lets you verify your identity.) Search for a name and these profiles generally show up in a search engine's top 10. This is a low-stress way to control your image and, incidentally, make yourself a passive job seeker.

Still, a site can't necessarily build a business on such a narrow premise, so each service is adding features designed to get us to use them more. Ziggs, for example, has ambitiously rebuilt its people search engine into a Web desktop where you can orient your world around the folks you know--from work, college, etc. "People were using us once a month as a reference site, and when they'd come, they'd spend two or three minutes," says Ziggs CEO, Tim DeMello. "Now they're spending 10 times as much time. We want to offer daily utility."

Unfortunately, daily utility is the fool's gold of the professional Web. Most people are not going to reinvent their whole routine to match someone else's business model, which makes Ziggs more interesting for its parts than its whole. Take Elizabeth Yekhtikian, a PR professional in Boston who uses Ziggs to prospect for new clients. "If I have an idea for a new business, I'll invite them into this professional environment for a chat," she says. Ziggs also allows you to send someone a cup of coffee (not instant coffee: a Starbucks gift card). But if no one you know is on the service, are you really going to invite people to join just to swap java?

Moreover, having someone's contact information doesn't make him or her a colleague. "How does one extract strength from such weak ties?" asks Hans Gieskes, CEO of H3.com, a service that tries to bolster those ties with cash incentives when people recommend others for jobs.

As an experiment, I imported 1,200 contacts into LinkedIn. Of those, about 350 were already members. I contacted all of them and asked them to connect. More than 230 have done so. But more interesting was the full gamut of responses to my request. It ranged from "Who are you, again?" to being thrilled to reconnect. Many people, justifiably, were protective of their contacts. "At some point, building a network just becomes an end in itself," was a recurring refrain, something I was clearly guilty of. Those folks understand LinkedIn's greatest value, and its greatest flaw: Let one pushy semi- outsider into your network, and you've polluted it.

Is there a way to make this evolving professional Web work for you? LinkedIn is certainly useful for tracking your most trusted colleagues. But "use it for high-value items only," counsels Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, who has been studying social networks since 2003. That means: It ain't an everyday tool.

And for all those other people you've met professionally--those you're not quite ready to have in your network yet--consider the sneaky power of Web 2.0: Google Alerts, Flickr photo streams, del.icio.us news-article feeds, and blog posts can quietly keep you up to date on what they're up to. Over time, you can casually ping them with good quarterly reports and other news until you earn the trust that a LinkedIn connection just presumes. Only then will the people, and not the connection, be what's most important.

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3 Comments

  • Chad Devore

    Larry... I feel your pain. If you're not looking for a job, what good is LinkedIn?

    We would love to have you over on our network, Fast Pitch! (www.fastpitchnetworking.com). Our community fills a void in the market left by sites like LinkedIn and Facebook by allowing you to actively network and market your business in a highly professional environment. We were recently named MSNBC's Website of the Week... and are already one of the largest business networks in the U.S.

    Let me know if/when you create a profile with us. I'll make you a complimentary Platinum Member to allow you to try us out. This will allow you to make as many connections as you would like. Good Luck!

  • Brandon Tendler

    Hi David you really have to check out Virtudex.com It’s the best business social network. The Times voted it the best new business social network of the year. Invite only so here is a pass code - 1Z1code

  • larry dennis

    IT IS ''ONLY'' WHO YOU KNOW IF YOU ARE LINKEDIN...

    NEW RULES -- RESPECT ALL PEOPLE - SAME AS THE OLD RULE!! BUT, IF YOU ARE LINKEDIN........ YOU'RE LOCKED OUT!!! FORGET THIS SITE FOR REAL NETWORKING!

    I DELETED MY ACCOUNT, AND SO DID ALL MY FRIENDS AT CBS NETWORK!

    This site is the biggest scam , on the Internet. They are NOT a friendly Professional business site. To network, means to meet new people in your related Industry. They don't advertise the fact that the first time you send an email to add a contact, that person can send the ''don't know you'' response, and then with very few,,like 3..they lock your account down, to have to ''know everyone you send an add to. Kind of defeats the idea, of BUSINESS NETWORKING! I NEVER SPAM! To be a treated like one was a real insult. No one is home in customer service, auto-responses only. It's just a trick, to get you to upgrade, more money! AND, they also have a very low classed- environment, [ MONEY DOESN'T BUY CLASS] That uses the dreaded'' don't know you response'' to dishonestly, eliminate the competition. They send that response, to purposely , use linkedin's stupid ''rule'' to keep you from being on the site to network, because they know, how easy it is to get your site locked. I was told, if you pay, we will fix it, $200 per month later...still can't use my account, and they kept my money. It's not a proper business model for any professional. What I found there was the pre-school bullies,,, all grown up, BUT much more egotistical. Are you good enough to join our group of pathetic losers??? No, Thankfully I guess not. I will be blogging about this much hyped, poor business site, EVERYWHERE!! To save good people from this very bad experience. Don't believe the hype of this poorly run site. First of all,,,does everyone in the World ''know each other''?? Most of all, read your own advertisements!!! It doesn't say ''network site for only people who know each other'' or, we will keep your money, and lockdown your networking abilities if 3 people say ''they don't'' know you! False advertising, insulting to real professionals, who think it's a real networking site. No warning til after they take your money, about the hidden-unwritten rules. Also, the REAL spammers, that PAID the highest monthly rate..still networking, NOT CLOSED DOWN! my average, 80 contacts knew me, only 3 said they didn't. So 3 out of 80!!! I'm Definitely NOT a spammer. Someone needs to put these guys out of business. SOON.... This situation is so common, that there is a group against that technique on their site called ''toplinked'' and, they have better respectful members. The main thing was the total ruthless attitude of the linkedin members, and lack of respect by the managers and owners of this site. I paid for them to insult me.

    WHY, Would I network with a website? to network people
    I already know??? that's silly!!!

    NO REAL MANAGEMENT,
    NO CUSTOMER SERVICE AT ALL. -
    ALL AUTO-RESPONSE- NO RESPECT!!!