Social networking sites are becoming more and more popular, and there is certainly no shortage of options. But how can you decide which one is best for your practice? For some, Facebook is too young and unprofessional. Others find Twitter to be lacking that personal connection they’re looking for. If either or both of these describe you, you’ll probably feel right at home on LinkedIn.

Founded in 2003, LinkedIn is the only social networking Web site geared entirely toward making professional connections. Its more than 40 million members have profiles that act essentially as resumes, summarizing their expertise, education, and accomplishments. Other users can search for you and join your network by making a “connection” with you. Once you are connected to someone, you are also connected, secondarily, to their connections, and to their connections’ connections. This allows you to potentially network with thousands of likeminded individuals, all of whom have access to your resume.

By taking just a few simple steps on this powerful site, agents just like you around the country — and, indeed, the world — are hooking up with other professionals and consumers to grow their practice, one connection at a time. So how can you get involved?

Getting connected
David Markley, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual, has been on LinkedIn since 2005, but he has only been using it aggressively since 2007. His experience started when a client contacted him through the site. They got to talking about LinkedIn, and Markley finally agreed to further discuss the site in his next meeting with the client.

“I went on and noticed that he was connected to 63 people,” Markley said. “He’s an attorney, so most of his connections were attorneys and a few business owners. I looked at the list and thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to meet all of these people.’ So I just printed off the list and took the pages to my next meeting with him.”

At the end of the meeting, Markley mentioned to his client that he wanted to meet his LinkedIn connections. The client offered to call the connections himself, but Markley asked if it would be OK if he mentioned the client’s name. The client enthusiastically agreed.

“He ended up referring me to 29 people,” Markley said. “That’s when the light bulb went off, and I said, ‘Wow, this is fantastic!’”

Ryan Pinney, brokerage director at Pinney Insurance, has also been able to generate business using his LinkedIn profile.

“I had one guy who was looking for a financial planner, and he found me through a LinkedIn connection,” Pinney said. “He contacted me through the site and I was able to help him get some insurance and that was just because he saw my profile and liked what he saw.”

One of the biggest draws to the LinkedIn network is connecting with other financial advisors, attorneys, and experts who can help your clients.

David Lau, chief operating officer at Jefferson National, said his company also uses LinkedIn internally to help upper-level sales staff connect with outside sales staff and clients.

Advice for getting started…
Linda Taylor, president of Taylor Marketing and Management, said that LinkedIn should be the first stop for any insurance agent looking to break into social networking.

“Most agents should be using LinkedIn as their first social networking tool,” she said. “It is structured from the get-go as a professional site. Once they’re on LinkedIn, they can, and should, join other sites.”

So where do you start once you decide to join LinkedIn?

Markley’s profile was incomplete for the first two years that he was a member of the site. Once he completed his profile, it was a lot easier for him to make contacts. Pinney suggested taking it slow at first, even if that means holding off on making connections for a while — at least until you establish your profile.

Once you have set up your profile, Lau said the key is to stay active. He suggested starting a newsletter, joining organizations and clubs, starting groups, and asking and answering questions posed on the site. Eventually, you can use some of the more advanced features, such as the ability to download a PDF of your profile and others on the site. Site members have been able to use their own PDFs like a resume, printing them out and handing them to prospective employers. You can also add a user’s information to your email contacts folder directly from their LinkedIn profile.

“Probably the most powerful tool you can use on LinkedIn is the ability to upload your presentations,” Taylor said. “Say you do a presentation for your local Rotary Club. You have the ability to upload that onto LinkedIn and share it with all of your connections. It’s a powerful professional tool.”

…and what not to do
While one of the biggest draws of LinkedIn is the ability to give recommendations to people you’ve worked with, as well as soliciting testimonials yourself, Lau said there is one pitfall that agents should look out for if they also happen to hold an investment license.

“LinkedIn promotes asking for recommendations, because that’s part of building your profile,” he said. “But financial advisors are prohibited from doing that.”

This is according to FINRA’s Rule 206(4) of the Investment Advisor Act of 1940, which prohibits investment advisors from asking for recommendations or testimonials to display on their marketing material. Even though the rule is old, Lau said, he has confirmed with FINRA that it does apply to the Internet. And while your connections may recommend you without your asking them to, if you hold an investment license, you should remove the recommendation from your public profile. Otherwise, it counts as a testimonial on your marketing material.

If you sell insurance and also hold an investment license, it’s a good idea to play it safe and follow this advice. If you’re only licensed to sell insurance, however, you can still accept and solicit recommendations as your business falls under state rather than federal regulations.

Pinney also noted that many of the site’s users seem to be trying to accumulate as many connections as possible with no real intention of using them.

“There’s no way that they’re actually doing anything productive with those contacts,” he said. “Don’t try to have too many contacts. I don’t think that’s quite as important as having contacts with people that you are actually currently working with.”

But for Markley, there’s only one mistake you can make: “The only thing I can think of is not using it. That would be the mistake.”

For any producer looking for a powerful site where they can network with other like-minded professionals, LinkedIn can be the key to making connections. And you might be surprised by how many of your current prospects are already on the site.

“Whenever I go out for a meeting, I always look [the client] up to see if they’re on LinkedIn,” Markley said. “I try to get connected with them before I have the meeting. And if they’re not on LinkedIn, I invite them to join, because everyone should be on.”

Heather Strickland is the associate editor for the Agent’s Sales Journal. She can be reached at HStrickland@AgentsSalesJournal.com or 800-933-9449 ext. 225.