Using LinkedIn for Research

LinkedIn is a useful way to keep track of your network, but I tend to use it more often for research purposes.  The information available tends to be hit or miss, so I’d recommend going in with the mindset of quickly filtering through the site rather than spending a lot of time on it.  I’ll walk you through my experience using the site and what I’ve found useful.

Profiles

People and company profiles are where the action is.  Here are my thoughts on what to look for:

  • I tend to use LinkedIn to find fairly senior people in the company (VP and above), and I then add them to my general background searches.  You can often find much more specific search engine results by including the names of senior management, and LinkedIn can be a good way to go beyond the leadership teams named on most companies’ sites.
  • Another useful piece of information is the titles and connections between people.  You can get pretty far constructing an org chart based on LinkedIn.
  • Some people have started showing their blog and Twitter information on their profiles as well, so LinkedIn is a good jumping-off point for taking a look at those and seeing if the topics are relevant.
  • If you’re planning on doing primary research, LinkedIn can be a great place to find sources.  You may want to try calling them rather than using LinkedIn’s introductions, which take forever and require a common contact.  The LinkedIn messages you get with a business subscription ($25, $50, or $500 a month, if you really want to break the bank) work fairly well, but the response rate is still somewhat lower than simply calling.
  • In general, don’t expect to find any quantitative information.  A few users may mention the number of employees or amount of revenue for which they are responsible, but in general everyone has the expectation that LinkedIn is a public venue.  So don’t expect to find the same level of detail you would find on resume sites.
  • LinkedIn is a good resource for employee counting on smaller or private companies, although clearly the number of employees on LinkedIn can only be directionally (consulting speak for not very accurately) associated with the total number.  This approach can be useful for market sizing or competitive intelligence.
  • Using the basic search box and entering a company name will get you a mish-mash of results – employees, vendors, customers, consultants, and whatnot.  For more fine-tuned results, go to the advanced people search and enter the company name and search separately for current and “past but not current” employees (the latter avoids returning people who have past and current positions at the company).
  • Company profiles are not typically very useful except for employee numbers and some basic statistics like the geographic breakdown of employees.  They’re worth a quick look, but that’s it.

Groups and answers

In a nutshell, I find most of the group discussions and answers posted on the site not very useful, and I avoid them unless I am scraping the bottom of the barrel for information.  The only real incentive people have to participate in groups or answers is either networking or to promote their company, so you will find that information is either biased towards a certain company or just not very useful.  LinkedIn just hasn’t quite figured out how to motivate people to provide anything particularly worth reading.  Your mileage may vary.  In fact, let me know if your experience is different.

Jobs

To be honest, I haven’t used the jobs feature much.  It seems like a good way to research hiring, but in my mind it basically duplicates more comprehensive resources like Indeed.  Again, I would love to hear any stories of getting value out of this stuff.

Overall takeaway

LinkedIn should definitely be one stop when you’re starting out a new research project, but don’t get your hopes up too much.  Focus on people and organizational structure since that’s the information that’s native to the LinkedIn application, not the other features that have sort of been bolted on.  If you’re pressed for time and organizational information isn’t of the essence, I’d skip it and go back to the basic background sources.


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