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If you, like thousands of other “sort-of” LinkedIn members, aren’t quite sure how to use this career-building, job-opportunity producing tool, take heart. With minimal time and effort, you can start benefiting from LinkedIn’s amazing ability to help you build your professional brand and network.

Brand-Building on LinkedIn
Creating your professional brand involves showcasing your strengths, accomplishments, and passions (assuming they’re legal) to your universe of friends, colleagues, and potential employers. How do you want the world to see you, without having the potential embarrassment of pointing out to hundreds of people face-to-face what an amazing person you are?

LinkedIn is perfect for this sort of low-embarrassment-factor branding. Think “everything I wanted to tell you about my brilliant career but was too shy or well-mannered to mention….” Or, if your brilliant career is still in pre-launch stage, this is an opportunity to showcase volunteer work you’ve done, education you’re pursuing, community projects you’ve worked on, etc. Your goal is to let people know you think of yourself as a professional (even if you’re still a student), and you have either created or are building your value as a potential employee.

Networking on LinkedIn
Offering three approaches to building your professional connections, LinkedIn provides a great opportunity to easily expand and maintain those contacts.

The first approach is to find a few friends or colleagues you’d like to “link” to, and then send them a request to link. A lot of people prefer this “less is more” approach, because it keeps their network to a small group with very strong bonds. The second approach is to link to everyone you know and/or have worked or taken classes with (and who happen to be on LinkedIn), on the assumption that you already have something in common. This creates a much broader network, but still one where you feel like you’ve already got established trust relationships.

The third approach is to link to (or accept link requests from) people with whom you may not have any pre-established relationship. This approach seems to work best for “power networkers” whose goals are based on having the largest possible pool of connections (for example, recruiters).

Tactics for Getting Started on LinkedIn
It’s free, it’s relatively easy, and having a presence on LinkedIn is quickly becoming as expected among professionals as having an up-to-date resume. Also, HR types and hiring managers almost all check out applicants’ LinkedIn profiles before considering them for job openings, and would be surprised not to find one for you. These days, you need to consider having a presence on Linked to be an important, but happily low-maintenance, part of your career platform.

If you’re just getting started, the following steps will help you cover the basics.

Make sure your profile is complete. If you haven’t created a profile yet, it’s easier if you go check out a couple of other profiles of people whose careers you admire, then gather/write the information you want to put in your own profile before you actually start inputting the data. If you’re stumped about what to write or how to phrase things, ask others who know you to help with ideas.

Make sure your summary showcases your strengths in business language.
Likened to an “elevator speech,” your summary is a couple of sentences that describe your expertise and background. If you’re just starting out in your career, you might want to describe your career interests, e.g., “Have focused on productivity among culturally-diverse work teams in my business administration coursework and researched methods for creating high-performing teams.”

Also, here is where you want to make sure to use the language (“keywords”) employers are likely to use to find someone with your skills. For example, if database management is the term people use in your field, make sure you’ve included it in your summary.

Include a photograph. It’s now pretty much expected that everyone posts a photograph of some sort; not doing so seems to create a sense that you’re hiding something, and tends to make readers uneasy about who you really are. Don’t feel like your photo needs to be a professional job, however; you’ll find plenty of “my best friend took this on his smartphone” photos on LinkedIn, and they work just fine.

Reach out and link to some friends, colleagues, or classmates. You don’t need hundreds of connections, but having zero connections on LinkedIn makes people wonder whether you live in a cave. Well, okay, maybe not a cave, but it does make you look a bit…odd. So find at least ten willing connections to add to your network!

Ask for some recommendations.
These can be from colleagues, bosses, classmates, teachers, people who have volunteered with you, just about anyone who can comment on how smart you are and what a delight you are to work with. Naturally, you’ll offer to reciprocate.

If you’re uncomfortable asking people to do this for you, try this wording: “Hi, [name], I hope all is going well with you! I’m contacting you because I’m in the midst of building out my LinkedIn profile, and was wondering if you would be willing to write a brief recommendation for me on LinkedIn about the work we did together at [company / school / volunteer project / etc.]. I would, of course, be happy to do the same for you.”

Join several groups that interest you. Go to the “Groups” tab at the top of the LinkedIn page, and check out the “Groups You May Like” option for groups matching keywords in your profile, or search on “Groups Directory” using some topics that interest you.

Being part of a group lets you connect with people who are interested in the same professional topics you are, and provides an acceptable platform of common interest with which to reach out to them if you’d like. You may also want to start building your brand visibility by asking or answering questions in the group’s discussion threads. If you’re a student, the members of most groups on LinkedIn are usually very receptive to and supportive of questions, but if you’re hesitant, then just lurk for awhile to see how the discussions go before you jump in.

These actions will help you start building your brand and your network on LinkedIn. But if you’d like more coaching, check out the “New User Starter Guide” by going to the LinkedIn homepage, then clicking on the “More” tab at the top of the page, then “Learning Center.” Also, when you have a chance, consider simply exploring the site to see what other options it offers.