Having just taught my latest Lassoing LinkedIn webinar last night, to help people learn the ropes of the powerful LinkedIn.com networking website, it struck me that it might be useful to compile a list of the “top 10 mistakes” that I’ve witnessed being made by novice users of the system.  Granted, the observations below are highly subjective, but my hope is that they’ll help some of you out there get even more mileage out of your LinkedIn.com experience!

1.  Not using it — or lumping it in with other social networking sites

Sorry, we’re going to start with the basics — including my passionate belief that the people out there who still haven’t “joined the revolution” in terms of using social networking sites, like LinkedIn, are at great risk of falling behind the technology curve and damaging their ongoing employment marketability.  These technologies may have snuck up on us in recent years, but they’re soon going to become as familiar a part of the business landscape as e-mail and cell phones.  And while this trend applies much more to white-collar professions that other types of fields, at the moment, this could quickly change down the road.  Also, for those who think all social networking websites (e.g. Myspace.com, Facebook.com, Plaxo.com, etc.) are created equal, or of equal value in a business or job hunting context, I’d beg to differ.  Sites like Facebook might have attracted over 100 million people of all ages who are interested in sharing photos, chatting with their friends, and the like, but LinkedIn is populated by over 30 million users — most of whom are in management, executive, and professional roles and looking to use the tool to forge meaningful, profitable business relationships.  There’s a WORLD of difference.

2. Paying for a membership when it’s not necessary

Unless you’re a bonafide “power user” who is going to be using LinkedIn every day, and sending out dozens of introductions each week, it’s unlikely you’ll need to sign up for a paid LinkedIn membership.  Don’t get me wrong — LinkedIn puts out a great product and I don’t begrudge them a single dollar they choose to charge people, but in reality, most users (job seekers included) won’t ever need to purchase more “bandwidth” on the system than they’re eligible to receive as a free user.  The main categories of people who would gain value from a paid subscription include sales professionals, recruiters, people in the human resources field, and other people whose jobs typically involve extensive daily networking.

3.  Failure to use the “Get Introduced” feature

One of the amazing things I’ve discovered, in teaching my Lassoing LinkedIn classes over the past few years, is that while millions of people have joined the LinkedIn system, a relatively small percentage of folks have actually used its single most important feature — which is to search for people relevant to their business/career goals, then reach out to these folks using the “Get Introduced” functionality of the system.  Hands down, this is the killer application of LinkedIn and the feature that trumps every other aspect of the tool, combined.  So if you haven’t been using the People page of the site to make these kinds of connections, you’re really missing the boat!

4.  Lack of creativity in People searching

As a follow-up to item #3, above, I’d mention that even those people who ARE regularly using the People page of the site to search for contacts may not be using it to full effect.  While the mechanics of the search process are fairly straightforward, many people would benefit from thinking more outside-the-box in terms of how best to pull up a list of useful individuals — or how to separate these individuals from the thousands of other profiles that might turn up in a simple, kneejerk search effort.  For example, if a job hunter was looking for a position as a paralegal, they could certainly just search using the words “legal” or “law firm” in the Keywords field of LinkedIn’s People page.  Such a search would be almost worthless, however, since there are way too many different contexts in which those words could come up in a member’s profile.  A much more targeted and effective search would be to search the Title field (set to Current only) for the phrase Counsel OR Attorney OR Lawyer.  Or to search the same field using Paralegal, simply to identify the companies in town that had a proven track record of hiring paralegals.  Or to search for the Title: Partner OR Director OR Attorney OR Counsel combined with checking the “Law Practice” box in the Industry field.  In most cases, there are several different searches you could run that would produce great results, but you have to first familiarize yourself with all the search field options — and then apply a strong dose of creative thinking!

5.  Lack of Profile optimization

Upon joining LinkedIn for the first time, most people are in such a rush to whip through the sign-up screens that they fail to flesh out their Profile to a sufficient degree.  Having an incomplete Profile, however, can result in many missed opportunities, since tons of employers and recruiters use LinkedIn these days to find talent for hire — and if you’ve got a wimpy Profile, you’re not going to show up!  So at the very least, you’ll want to put your full work history and education into your Profile, and I’d also recommend you create a powerful Summary statement and then pack your Specialties section with at least 10-15 of the most relevant buzzwords in your field.  For example, if you’re a Sales Manager and don’t have phrases like sales pipeline, sales funnel, prospecting, negotiation, sales presentations, and lead qualification in your Profile, you could easily get missed by a recruiter searching for those specific skill sets.

6.  Usage of the default LinkedIn scripts & templates

Okay, while this may not technically be the biggest mistake one can make on LinkedIn, it’s definitely my biggest personal pet peeve!  Whenever you initiate contact with somebody on LinkedIn, such as inviting them to connect with you, requesting an introduction, sending an InMail, and the like, the system pops up an automatic, generic note that you can send along by default.  The problem with using these built-in scripts is that 1) they’re vague, boring, and painfully overused; and 2) they defeat the fundamental purpose of the system, which is to build trust with your key relationships.  In other words, if you come across an old friend on the site and decide to reestablish contact with them, after many years, I think they deserve something more heartfelt than “I’d like to invite you to join my personal network on LinkedIn.”  So take the extra 30 seconds, delete the default note, and write a more customized message that says something meaningful.  It’s basically the equivalent of how you feel when you receive a birthday card with just the cheesy Hallmark slogan inside, versus a card that includes a handwritten personal note…

7. Inviting people you don’t know to connect

No matter how many times LinkedIn warns against this, or I emphasize it to the folks I encounter, there is still the perception among many people that the goal of LinkedIn, and similar sites, is to build as many connections as possible with other people on the system.  Nothing could be further than the truth.  Remember, the only thing that separates these sites from simply picking up the phone book, and connecting with other people at random, is that they’re built (at least ideally) on a web of friendships and the deep chains of trust between individuals.  So if the “arms race” continues and people continue to connect with tons of other people, willy-nilly, my prediction is that people will start to abandon LinkedIn in favor of other sites where the networking pool is less diluted.  We’re not there yet, thankfully, but I’d urge people to do their part by only connecting with those people they’ve personally met — and with whom they have a personal relationship and a healthy level of conditional trust.

8. Requesting endorsements from the wrong people

Endorsements are great.  Endorsements feel good.  Endorsements add those cute little “thumbs up!” icons next to your LinkedIn profile.  When requesting endorsements from other folks in the system, however, make sure the person you’re asking is truly in a position to say something meaningful about your skill sets, experience, or character.  It’s considered bad form to ask for an endorsement from someone, say, that you met just last week at a networking event or who is a friend that hasn’t really had the chance to work with you professionally.  So be somewhat judicious when making these requests — and make sure to give back and write them for other people, too, whenever appropriate!

9.  Confusing 2nd Degree contacts with 3rd Degree ones

While this is an innocent mistake, to be sure, I’ve noticed that many novice users of LinkedIn don’t pay close enough attention to the “degree” of the contact they’re targeting when they request an introduction to somebody — or perhaps they don’t fully understand the “degrees of separation” concept that underlies the system in the first place.  This problem materializes most often when somebody decides to try to make contact with another LinkedIn member who shows up as a 3rd Degree contact (i.e. the friend of a friend of a friend) in their network.  So let’s say they know me, and I know Bob, and Bob knows Judy — and Judy’s the person they’re hoping to reach.  When they send their introduction request out to me, however, they’ll often say something like “Matt, would you introduce me to your friend Judy?” without realizing that I don’t actually KNOW Judy, myself.  She’s the friend of my friend.  Not a big deal, to be sure, but as their note gets routed along the chain it makes them look a little silly — or exposes them as a total LinkedIn greenhorn, at the very least! :)

10.  Setting up more than one Profile

Unfortunately, many LinkedIn members have become “born again” users of the system without even realizing it.  It’s not uncommon for people to create an account on the system, connect with a bunch of friends, and later discover that they actually had already created another profile on the site years ago — and forgotten about it!  As a result, they end up having two sets of books on the system, so to speak, with some of their contacts attached to one profile and a bunch of other contacts connected to the other.  Their network not only becomes highly confused by this duplication, but a ton of inefficiency ends up being created as valuable Profile updates, new connections, and other changes would need to be made twice.  Trust me, you don’t want to be in this situation, and there’s no easy way (no way at all, actually) for a person to merge two or more profiles together.  So if you’ve discovered that you’ve got more than one profile on the system, immediately address the problem by searching the LinkedIn help menu for “merging accounts” and follow the instructions provided.  The sooner you nip this problem in the bud, the better!

So there you have it.  You’ve now got my “top 10” list in terms of the most common mistakes I’ve seen people make on LinkedIn — and since I’m on a roll, here’s one bonus (and hopefully self-explanatory) mistake I’ll throw in for good measure…

11.  Adorning your profile with that fuzzy/embarrasing/unflattering photo your brother/friend/self-timer took of you lounging on the sofa/hugging your pet/partying down in Cabo…

Why, oh why, do people keep doing this? :)