Ah, LinkedIn.  For all of its limitations, quirks, and frustrations it still continues to be the most useful tool ever invented for networking, job searching, and career advancement.  And yet, for all of the amazing relationship-leveraging potential it offers, many users of the system continue to overlook quite a few creative ways they could use the site’s functionality to achieve various business and career goals.

As I’ve emphasized many times before, I believe the fundamental magic of LinkedIn has nothing to do with the most obvious features of the site most people focus on — such as the job board, one’s profile, and the endless stream of notes/articles that cascade down the Home page.  While these features can be helpful, for sure, they pale in comparison to the site’s most unique capability, which is the power to 1) instantly search for and build a list of the exact types of professionals you need to meet; and 2) reach out to these relevant individuals through a mutual acquaintance, so you don’t have to approach them “cold” as a total stranger.

On that note, and just to make sure everybody is up to speed on the creative networking potential of the system, here are 13 distinct ways — some fairly obvious, some not so obvious — in which one might use LinkedIn from a networking standpoint.  Learn how to search the site properly, and you can:

1) Get your foot in the door at specific companies by searching for “friends of friends” who work there and asking your mutual acquaintance if they can make a referral on your behalf; in many organizations today, internal referrals get top priority in the hiring process, so all kinds of great things can happen if you can get somebody inside the company serving as an advocate for your skills

2) Pitch your skills directly to potential hiring managers by clarifying the likely title of your next boss, turning hundreds of such individuals up with a search, and then reaching out to them either through a mutual contact, a cold call, or an “InMail” solicitation; sure, you won’t win them all, but it goes without saying that if you approach the exact people most likely to recognize, need, and value your expertise, your odds of success go way up

3) Brainstorm new career options for yourself by looking up people who have very similar skills, talents, and interests to yourself and seeing what they all do for a living; an attorney seeking to break out of that profession, for example, could search for anybody on the site who has a law degree but ISN’T currently working as a lawyer, judge, or professor; what other creative possibilities show up?

4) Locate/contact people for informational interviews in cases when you’re considering a career change and seeking to learn more about an unfamiliar industry or occupation; with LinkedIn, you can easily turn up dozens or hundreds of people who are already well-established in your desired target field and who would likely be glad to share some insights, tips, and shortcuts if you approach them politely

5) Research specific people you’ll be interviewing with to learn more about their background, philosophy, and personality; given that most hiring managers have a profile on LinkedIn you can look up, you’ll be able to arrive at the interview knowing lots more about such people than in years past — just stop short of getting too chummy about what you’ve learned to the point that it seems a bit forced, awkward, or weird

6) Identify recruiters and staffing professionals who work in your field and/or industry, either to engage their help in getting hired or to retain them in helping you hire other folks; virtually every recruiter on the planet has a LinkedIn presence and if you search using titles like recruiter, recruiting, and talent acquisition — and add a few appropriate keywords or industry menu selections — you’ll turn the right ones up

7) Identify complimentary service providers whom you can approach to build a strategic partnership or referral relationship; while this applies more if you run your own business or work as a freelancer, don’t by shy about asking “who else works with similar clients, but in a different capacity?” and see if they want to join forces in drumming up some new business opportunities

8) Recruit board members or volunteers for non-profit opportunities; simply identify the specific professional expertise you’re seeking, then combine it with keywords related to the mission or cause you’re involved with, and chances are you’ll turn some folks up who are a match with both parameters

9) Land contract work or track down freelancers who might be able to help you with specific needs like graphic design, legal services, web development, or accounting; you can do this not only by running standard people searches using relevant titles/keywords, but also by going into LinkedIn’s new “Profinder” section which is specifically designed to help service providers market their wares

10) Research training/educational options by contacting people who have gone through various programs you’re considering and asking for their impressions of the institution they attended, the value of the credentials they acquired, and whether the ROI was worth it; just put the prefix school: in front of the name of whatever institution you’re considering, run a search, and a number of appropriate alumni should pop right up

11) Explore relocation opportunities by searching for 2nd degree contacts in the cities, states, or countries you’re thinking about targeting; people always tell me that their network is “mostly located back in XYZ city or state…” and therefore can’t help them, but I always point out that the world is a small place and believe or not, your friends in Seattle just might know a number of people in Austin…or Chicago…or the Bay Area…or Zimbabwe

12) Reach out to your employed competitors to see if they’ve heard of any appropriate leads floating around; if you’re a CFO in the biotech industry, in other words, don’t be afraid to look up some peers that hold similar roles and reach out to them — in polite and professional fashion — since they’d be the most likely people around to get contacted by recruiters about emerging opportunities in your field

13) Build goodwill and assist other people with favors; last but not least, even if you’re not in a position where you’re working on an immediate networking goal, simply being on LinkedIn will expose you to various people looking for help or a favor from time to time — and if you lend a hand to these folks, you’ll start building a fan club and a pipeline of kind souls who are ready to reciprocate on your behalf, down the road!