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More than just 'social media', Linkedin is how professionals now represent themselves digitally to the rest of the business world.
We often think of LinkedIn as ‘social media', as Facebook for business people. That has some truth: LinkedIn can be a productive place to discuss issues with peers, as well as a good source of articles tailored to your business interests. And LinkedIn’s company pages can reinforce the messages of your own website.
But many of the people who make a living helping businesses use LinkedIn’s full potential think of it another way. They see it primarily as ‘Amazon for talent’, a market in which actual and potential partners, suppliers, employees and hirers come to browse, leave reviews and look at the skills on offer. Just as Amazon details the reputation of books and consumer goods, LinkedIn shows the reputations of people. US LinkedIn consultant Wayne Breitbarth describes LinkedIn as “the best research site we have ever had for humans”.
Google, for one, seems to agree. LinkedIn profile pages now dominate Google search results for individual names — and in many professional firms, it's the profile of individual professionals that drives business.
Most people now understand the basics of LinkedIn. Its free version gives you the equivalent of an internet-age business card: picture, skills summary, professional history, publications list. It enables you ‘connect with other LinkedIn members, so that their messages appear in your LinkedIn home page and yours in theirs.
But LinkedIn’s most powerful feature may be its tools for allowing people's connections to provide feedback about their skills and abilities.
Analysts such as UK LinkedIn consultant Mark Lee emphasise the importance of LinkedIn’s ‘recommendations – essentially old-fashioned testimonials in which you write a sentence or three on the talents of the person you’re recommending.
The second of the site's reputation tools is one-click ‘endorsements', which took off at the end of 2012. They show people how many of your connections have agreed you have particular skills. Experts like Lee argue it's actually too easy to ‘endorse' a connection, even for a skill they don't have. But when someone has 37 endorsements for cash-flow management, it's likely they have at least some capability.
Of course, LinkedIn profiles promote individuals, not firms - a potentially problematic issue from a firm's point of view. For a start, helping staff to improve their profiles could mean helping them get their next job. Indeed, LinkedIn makes more than half its revenue from recruiters.
“That's the double-edged sword of this work,” says Breitbarth, who hears the objection from many of his clients but tells them that it’s a necessary risk if you want to improve your profile. “I’d want my people to stand tall if I had a good firm,” he says.
And because individual staff members within a firm control their own profiles, you need to persuade them to ensure that not just their skills, but your brand messages are properly represented in their profiles. “You have to get buy-in’,” says Breitbarth. “People feel they are pretty good networkers already.”
Breitbarth brings people along by showing profiles of staff at the firm's rivals and asking, “would people pick you”? It’s a question that was being asked long before the internet arrived. Only the tools have changed.
How accounting firms can make the most of LinkedIn:
. Check that your existing brand statements reflect your intent.
. Get staff to buy into raising the firms LinkedIn profile.
. Make sure that firm and staf profiles reflect. the brand.
. Check that all profile information is accurate.
. Ask established suppliers, customers and contacts for recommendations or endorsements.
. Use LinkedIn to research potential new clients.
. Provide individuals with the IPAs Social Media Toolkit (pubacct.org.au/ pas-social-media-toolkit).