LinkedIn. The social network for the workplace.
I have something of a lax attitude towards it. I don't share much on it and I rarely search for connections on it. I've even closed my account there, and then a couple of years later I setup my account again. Since then its use for me has gradually tapered off to the point where I'm once again considering deleting my account again.
As a freelancer though I wonder if I'm committing career suicide. I've looked at a number of other web development freelancers in the UK market and they don't always have a LinkedIn profile. They certainly have their own website under their own name or a company name and usually a Twitter account too, but they don't always have a LinkedIn profile. I can only speculate on the reasons for this, but I'd like to think they're great in their field and don't need to use LinkedIn. There could be other reasons though.
So I have a LinkedIn account at the moment but is it essential to have?
Before I decide on whether I should remove it or not I want to talk about why I'm not convinced that LinkedIn is right for me.
No Content Value
I'm not getting any content value from it. Based on the people I follow, few of them post to LinkedIn on a frequent basis. Only a small number of people in my network share content on a frequent basis at LinkedIn but it's the same content I can find elsewhere.
Part of this problem is that I see LinkedIn as a secondary social network. I see Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus and a few others as being primary social networks. They are the first sources I would go to find content. I don't see LinkedIn as being in the same league as these.
This also puts it in the stack of networks that I would question sharing content too. As a secondary social network, I don't share anything there. I already have outlets where people can read my content and conversely where I can read the content of others through Twitter, email and RSS.
So if there's no content on LinkedIn, then I see little need for me to share anything myself.
I'm not getting the right leads from it. I often get offers of work for the wrong jobs.
For a number of years I worked as a Dynamics NAV developer. They're a rare breed and are hard to find but even harder to find as being available for hire.
In the last five years I have done about six months of work with Dynamics NAV. So it's fair to say that I'm fairly rusty on the platform and probably out of touch with it. Yet I still get messages in LinkedIn to connect with recruitment consultants to see if I have any interest in Dynamics NAV jobs.
This isn't LinkedIn's fault directly, but the platform they have built has now become a marketplace for recruitment consultants to find people that almost match their client's needs. Often a keyword match will suffice, but based on my recent experience and job title on LinkedIn, I wouldn't imagine that a freelance web developer would be interested in Dynamics NAV work again.
I'm not a fan of the LinkedIn user interface. It is a busy and complicated website. There's calls to action everywhere you look. Completing your profile, sharing content, connecting with others. It sounds a lot like any other social network, except for LinkedIn their aim is for you to connect with others and build your network. This doesn't translate too well in terms of their user interface and rather than putting the focus on expanding your network they now have calls to action for other features such as sharing content and replying to or actioning content others have posted.
I usually log into LinkedIn on a fortnightly basis. I do a five minute check on messages and invitations and then I'm done. I'm everything that LinkedIn doesn't want in a user. And for that reason I limit my time in using it.
There Are Benefits
So we've looked at concerns I have with LinkedIn but it does have it's benefits.
Seeing recommendations from others is a great way for clients to see your value. It could be easily done on your own branded site by asking clients for recommendations though.
Then there's the skills and endorsements. Now I admit that this is only a mouse click that others do for you. It shouldn't be any kind of benchmark to measure a freelancer's skill set against, but at a quick glance it can be useful to see who has recommended you for what. However the real value in a freelancer is seeing that knowledge first hand and that's why I think it's more important to see a freelancer writing about their experience in their field rather than just relying on this skills and endorsements feature from LinkedIn.
Finally, it is useful to have a network of people that you have worked with and more importantly to have that network separate from other social media accounts you might have. Mixing business and pleasure rarely pays off so it's nice to have a separate network in the form of LinkedIn.
So why not use LinkedIn then?
I don't use LinkedIn for searching for initial contacts for two reasons.
I find the invitations process to be too impersonal. Yes I have connections with others I have worked with but this is always with people that I have met in person or exchanged more than my fair share of phone calls or emails with. I don't like the idea of blindly getting invitations to connect on LinkedIn so I don't use them myself unless the person in question is someone I've met or someone I've chatted with on a frequent basis.
LinkedIn isn't where I post content so I wouldn't refer potential customers to there to begin with. Instead I would refer potential customers to websites I have worked on and to my own website.
For these two reasons I skip using LinkedIn to find clients. I favour direct contact with people using details from their website. Sure it might be a more manual process than searching for clients on LinkedIn and then inviting each one to connect, but tailoring each phone call and email to each potential clients shows a bit more effort to get to know that potential client.
What's the replacement to LinkedIn then?
So I've filled you in about my opinions on LinkedIn, but if I'm not using LinkedIn, then how do I network? How do I market myself? How do I reach people?
Glad you asked.
When it comes to my freelance business I don't measure it in terms of the number of connections I have, I measure it by how much work I have planned in the next six months. If the schedule is full, the business is doing well, if not then I need to find more business. It's simple. There are a number of other reasons as well, but for the overall view of the business it's easy for me to assess my position by how much work I have planned in the near future.
If I was going to close my LinkedIn account then I would need to find suitable replacements for each of the features that LinkedIn has. I already have a number of these setup .
Profile and Content
Right, let's get the obvious one out of the way. You need a website for your profile and marketable content.
That's easy. Get yourself a domain and a blog.
For a long time I has a single blog under my own name, but it was difficult to separate personal and work posts. So at the end of last year I decided to start trading under the name of DigitalBothy. I have a site for it now and a number of posts there that features the type of work I do. It's early days for it and I wish I did this from the start but better late than never.
I have plans to make an about and contact page there so that I can easily separate leads from other messages to this site. I do get the odd question about programming and other topics on my personal website and I'm glad to help out and reply when I can but for freelance work I like to have a separate website for this.
Last year I got more referrals and work through the contact form on my own personal website than I did through LinkedIn. My LinkedIn profile might have helped but the fact that most leads came through my own website is hard to ignore.
I need to manage my contacts. I don't use the term network here as networking is the action of contacting people. As a freelancer I need to do more than just contact people.
I use phone, email, RSS and social networks to keep abreast of potential clients and industry news. I use phone calls and emails to find out about the position of clients and potential clients and whether they would be in need of my services. I also use email, RSS and social networks to monitor potential clients to see if there are opportunities potentially available or if their situation changes e.g. any recent investments or changes in company direction.
I use Highrise to manage contact with my clients and leads. It's a relatively new addition to my list of freelancing tools, but I have had a CRM in one form or another but the decision to move to Highrise is because it has a number of features that I benefit from.
I keep all client notes, emails and documents in a feature that Highrise calls a "case". I have one for each client. Keeping everything together makes it easier to search for client details, deliverables in an email or a deadline that a client has mentioned.
Highrise also has great integration with email which means that I can redirect client emails to Highrise by just including the dropbox email for each client. I also use Mail to redirect incoming email from clients to Highrise as well.
This is where LinkedIn falls short for me as a tool for my freelance business. LinkedIn has the tools to create and grow your network but that's where it ends. I could use LinkedIn's own tools to message clients, but LinkedIn isn't a true CRM or an easily accessible platform to find my content.
With my own tools I can start building my profile, marketing myself with content and make connections with clients and leads to help keep my freelance business ticking over. And it's working well for me.
So do I need LinkedIn as a freelancer?
Probably not. It offers little to me in terms of value other than being a network tool, but networking involves more than just clicking buttons. True networking is face to face meetings, phone calls, emails and going to events. Sure it's nice to sit behind a desk and search for potential clients on LinkedIn but the true value comes from searching for those potential clients out in the field and tailoring your introduction to each of them. It comes from marketing your valuable skills in the best way possible and with case studies to back it up.
Still I can't help but think that closing my LinkedIn account is wrong to do, but only because it has become commonplace to have one. For many it is necessary to have one, but LinkedIn's value to me is questionable.
I'm still on the fence about closing my LinkedIn account, but in the meantime I will be tailoring it towards what I do now as a freelancer and relying on it less in the future.