LinkedIn is the premiere destination for professionals online to connect and build relationships, but how effective is it really? The answer to this question doesn't lie in the platform itself, but in the way you use it - as is always the case with any social site.
The Lion's Share can Starve You
I don't want to insult any person or group, so I will refrain from using any names, but there are groups on LinkedIn which tend to render the entire idea of the platform as impotent by diluting it down to the equivalent of a Twitter user with millions of followers. This is nothing more than a 140 character version of watching a TV show or movie. No matter how much you yell at the screen, they can't hear you. If you are joining networking groups for sheer numbers so that your Klout score may go up a notch, you are literally wasting your time.
There are members of LinkedIn who have several hundred thousand people in their "professional networks", but if you ask them what they know about any of them, I would lay good money down that they couldn't tell you one thing about them, even if they have excellent social media management tools. Ask yourself: how exactly does this help you in your career or business? Answer: it doesn't in the least. This said, LinkedIn can be an extremely powerful resource when used correctly and efficiently.
Use the Family Approach
The easiest way to explain how LinkedIn can be an effective tool for your business or for your career is to consider the analogy of the Facebook user. There are those on Facebook who will "friend" anyone who will accept their invitation, and who will accept any invitations that come their own way. This is like trying to be friends with every single person in a city of hundreds of thousands of people. The chances of any of those "relationships" being worth a dime is pretty low.
There are other Facebook users who only connect with their family and real-life friends, or maybe with friends of friends. By contrast, these connections tend to be very meaningful, not just a name on a long, worthless list. On LinkedIn, there is more incentive to "meet" new people through the site, because (despite my previous rantings), there is value in having a decent professional network, as long as the connections are maintainable.
LinkedIn is a great place to find people to network with professionally. For instance, if you are in accounting and connect with other accountants and join accounting groups, you will likely discover tips, tricks, and best practices that will help you in your current position. If you are looking for a position elsewhere, your chances of discovering new opportunities go way up as well.
Real-Life Business Relationships
There are also several advantages to the LinkedIn platform in maintaining relationships with people that you actually know. One of these is that life can get busy, and having an online space to keep in touch on matters that are professional in nature can help you keep up when you just can't make the time for as many meetings or organizations as you would like in real life. You could think of it as a hubbed extension of your email, social feeds, and information feeds related to your profession.
Another excellent example of the advantages to "keeping up" with friends in a professional setting is that people change jobs, locations, and careers fairly often in the modern world. If you were to leave your accounting profession to pursue a new career in business management, having friends that you stay in touch with in other locations or positions could be very advantageous to you as you branch out. After all, personal recommendations generally go much further than generic resumes.