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The Industry Conference or the Cocktail Party

In the past few months, I've seen more of my over-40 friends and colleagues get active on Facebook.  At the same time, activity on LinkedIn still continues to be very high.  Many of my less-connected friends ask me "should I sign up for these?", "what's the difference?", and "isn't Facebook really for kids?"  So, if you wonder whether or not you should use these services, here's my take on the answers.

LinkedIn is like walking the halls of a huge industry conference.  It's aimed at business people, with most of the data structured around jobs you've held, education you have, and skills you have.  It's great for trying to hire people as you can easily search for people with certain jobs from certain companies and in certain geographies.  There are ways to recomend the work of others and industry groups to join.  The main purpose of LinkedIn is to expand your professional network.  The site makes it easy for you to leverage your existing contacts to make new ones.  And, if you join a networking group, it's easy to reach out to others in the group.  There is a very good search function that let's you identify people you want to get connected to.

Personal membership in LinkedIn is free, but they sell business memberships that are mostly aimed at recruiting.  I am a personal member, so I am not well versed in the business membership benefits.  If you are doing a lot of hiring, you should check it out.  One nice thing about LinkedIn is that despite having so many people in there, I receive almost no spam.  The messages I get are either from people who know me who want to connect with me on LinkedIn or from those who are leveraging a mutual connection of ours to get to know me.  I may or may not be interested in all of these requests, but none of them are a waste of time.  If you join LinkedIn, you should be ready to expand your network and to help others expand theirs.

There is some amount of social interaction on LinkedIn, but not much.  There is a way to ask questions of your network, and the content of those questions vary.  And, you can post your individual status so that others in your network can see what you're doing.

My analogy for LinkedIn is walking the halls of a big industry conference with your name badge on.  You interact with business contacts you know, and there are a lot of other people around.  You can get introduced to your friends' friends, and most people can see at least your name.  It's a pretty safe environment and very professional.

An example of how I used LinkedIn:  Let's say that I am working with a semiconductor company that wants to hire a new VP of Marketing in Dallas, TX.  It's very easy to search for all of the VPs of Marketing in the semiconductor industry that are in or near Dallas.  If there are names that come up that look interesting, I can quickly see how my network extends to this person.  If I don't know them directly, I can see if they are connected to one of my contacts, or to one of my contacts' contacts.  This indirect network expands quickly.  Currently, I have 1487 direct connections on LinkedIn.  The extended network of my contacts, their contacts, and their contacts' contacts is over 7.5M people.  So, that's a large database to mine when I want to make a new business contact.  Some may say that I am too promiscuous on LinkedIn!

If LinkedIn is the industry conference, Facebook is the cocktail party afterwards (which spills out into the city streets).  As you might know, Facebook started as a way for college students to get in touch, keep in touch with their former high school classmates, and maintain contact after college.  It is very social, and I am sure that the killer app that drove initial adoption was dating.

Facebook is all about people posting what they are doing, what they like doing, how they express themselves, and sharing all of that with their friends.  You can expand your friend network pretty easily, but I find that Facebook has more 'noise' than LinkedIn for business use.  There are still lots of students on Facebook, but more and more of us 'old folks' have been joining.  And, more of my industry contacts are active on Facebook.  My own set of Facebook 'friends' has family, friends, business contacts, high school students (my son and some of his friends), college students (from work I do in and around MIT and elsewhere), high school classmates, and more.  It would be scary if they all met one day!

The subject of the chatter on Facebook is much more like what you'd talk about at a cocktail party -- what are you doing, where are you going, what do you like (music, art, food), what's newsworthy, etc.  It's really easy to jump in and comment on anything that your friends are talking about.  But, you won't find many deep discussions.  There is a lot of photo sharing on Facebook, which is nice if you are keeping up with family and friends.

After playing around with Facebook on and off for the past few years, I've come back to it again recently.  As more of my friends and business contacts are on there, it's a nice way to stay connected.  There is more value than you think in saying "I'm on my way to Texas" and having some people I know in Texas say "Stop by for a drink!"  Or, saying that you don't feel well today and having many people you know wish you well.  I don't find it a substitute for being a friend, but it can make do in a pinch.

As I said, Facebook is like a cocktail party.  There is lots of chit chat, and you can definitely meet new people or just stick to your old friends.  There is probably a wilder side than what you have seen, but you can ignore it if you wish.  It's still a pretty safe environment as you can control who can communicate with you.  But, I still get more random invites that I would consider spam on Facebook than I do on LinkedIn.  Nevertheless, I haven't received anything that I would consider inappropriate or in poor taste.

I had a debate with a colleague of mine today about which one would win in the long-term -- LinkedIn or Facebook.  Quite honestly, I don't see one as a substitute for another.  Ideally, I'd like them to merge, but with a way for me to keep business and personal contacts separate.  That separation is important.  I don't see a need for me to keep my business background a secret from anyone, but I am sure that there are things in my Facebook profile that are best kept to just my friends and cocktail party buddies.

If you haven't joined either one, you are probably missing something.  I'm willing to bet that some of your friends and/or business contacts are already on there.

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