Carl Taibl is a big believer in the power of personal contacts — even if those contacts don't know who the heck he is. Taibl, a CPA with San Ramon, California-based accounting firm Armanino McKenna LLP, has for the past five years been a regular user of LinkedIn, a popular social-networking site geared to professional users. The CPA goes onto the Website to conduct research and establish connections with other LinkedIn members. "If there's a company I want to learn more about I see if someone one or two degrees of separation away works there and can get me an introduction" says Taibl. "It's very useful, particularly if you don't know anyone at a company you're targeting."
Taibl is not alone. Business executives are increasingly turning to social-networking sites to pitch potential partners, make introductions, or pry away employees. Scores of commerce-aimed virtual communities have sprung up, including Ryze, Xing (formerly OpenBc), Ecademy, Hoover's Connect, Spoke, and Vshake. While the sites are dwarfed by the largest social nets (MySpace claims 38 million unique users), these commercial sites are getting bigger. LinkedIn boasts 8.5 million registered members. David Card, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research in New York, says size isn't the only thing to consider when assessing a business-networking site. "There's value to exclusivity," he says, "if you can actually pull it off."
And therein lies one of the problems with social networks: in some cases, it's hard to know if the person on the other end of the E-mail is who he says he is. "Anyone can go to any social-networking site and say he's Bill Gates and claim to know people he doesn't really know," says Vshake founder Sagi Richberg.
What's more, the big selling point of many social networks — access to a larger online community — can also end up being something of a drawback. Indeed, some site members complain about getting too many unwanted E-mail requests. Lawrence Husick, a patent attorney with Lipton, Weinberger & Husick in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, says it becomes "a challenge and a burden to determine whether you have the time and interest to evaluate and pass on a referral," particularly as you get more distant contacts. As he sees it, social networking can quickly devolve into "social pestering."
Sites like LinkedIn try to skirt these problems by limiting contacts to "trusted" friends or acquaintances — that is, hooking up users to those who want to be connected and connecting only to friends of friends.
Vshake, launched in June and based in Ashland, Massachusetts, lets users charge for their information and contacts, with the site operators taking a 10 percent cut. To prevent pretexting, Vshake offers an optional verification system. Currently, the site has 2,000 members. In fact, the audience may be a little too exclusive. "There has to be some balance between viral marketing and reasonably managed growth," says Husick. "Vshake needs to be ramped up a little for real value."
LinkedIn doesn't need any ramping up. Launched in 2003, the Palo Alto, California-based company's membership has nearly doubled in the past year. Although LinkedIn is free, it also offers upgraded business accounts. The fees for those accounts range from $19.95 a month to $2,000 a year. Beyond the typical contact and research features, LinkedIn recently launched a service called Answers. Orly Keren, marketing manager at LinkedIn, says site members can use Answers to post either private or public questions, receive responses from other members, and then indicate who gave the best answer.
Keith Taylor, CFO of Corfino Inc., a finance- and accounting-services provider, says he plans to frequent Answers. He predicts the section will be particularly useful for managers at small companies, since they don't generally have the same finance resources as larger outfits. "When you're a member of LinkedIn," Taylor says, "you have a certain responsibility to be proactive and to jump in and respond."
While the obligation can prove burdensome at times, it can also generate career opportunities. "You develop a certain reputation and experience base, and that can help you down the road," says Taylor. "People will steer you toward job opportunities."
Taylor is not just hypothesizing. One of the board memberships he holds is a direct result of someone finding him on LinkedIn. Although Taylor gets 5 to 10 inquiries a week — including a handful from people he doesn't know — he says LinkedIn offers the ability to decline an invitation or respond at a later time. If someone chooses to decline an offer, LinkedIn provides a prewritten note the user can send.
Serving the Goth Community
Wayne Lemmerhirt knows all about those form letters. A former group manager of application development at Welch Foods Inc., he began a LinkedIn blitz a few months ago to scour up a new job. To date, Lemmerhirt is still unemployed. "When you start getting a couple of nodes down in their network," he says, "you find that people won't respond to you, because everything is by E-mail."
The brush-off, while frustrating, is understandable. Kindness to strangers generally entails certain risks. "People are afraid they're going to inherit your job search," explains Lemmerhirt. "The person asking for help might become a leech."
Limiting the audience can help limit unwanted requests. Certainly, niche networking sites have become extremely popular among consumers. These sites appeal to audiences with shared interests. In most instances, the interests are fairly common (CarDomain.com); in others, less so (VampireFreaks.com).
Industry experts say builders of business-networking sites are already starting to hit upon some intriguing niches. One site, London-based PowerMingle, focuses mostly on networking for conferences and events. ImNotFromHere, based in Minneapolis, caters to professionals who have moved or been transferred to new cities.
Another trend: sites with regional tie-ins. Networking for Professionals, for example, is a virtual community whose users are based primarily in New York and New Jersey. CPA Jeff Spiegel says he's used the site both to look for resources for clients and to do research for work. "I was impressed by the number of members and their accessibility," says Spiegel.
So far, Spiegel has picked up a number of clients thanks to the site. As with selling in the real world, though, he says acquiring customers via the Web can be time-consuming. "Networking is not just about bringing in new business but developing business relationships," he says. "You never know when you might get that referral for a piece of business. It could be five years from the time you meet somebody."
Esther Shein writes frequently about technology and social trends.
Some popular business-networking sites
|8.5 million||350 companies deployed corporate version last year|
|1.5 million||HQ in Hamburg; formerly Open Business Club|
|Ryze||250,000||Free; advanced features cost $9.95 a month|
|Ecademy||100,000||Subscription-based site located in the UK|
|Hoover's Connect||NA||Bundled with contact tracker/mapper|
|Source: The companies|