For years, I’ve steadfastly maintained that very few LinkedIn users — including most job hunters — don’t need to fork over the funds to get a “premium” subscription on the LinkedIn website.  There was simply no need, as people have historically been able to use about 97% of the system’s key functionality without paying a dime.  And to underscore this advice, I’ve pointed out to the participants in my LinkedIn training classes that I, myself, have been a freeloader on the site since the moment I joined it, almost 10 years ago!

But the times, they are a-changing.  Over the past year, LinkedIn has embarked on a frustrating (but completely understandable) series of changes to the site, crippling a lot of important functionality that used to be available to all users, free and paid alike.  For example, they used to allow you see the full names of all of your connections, even the 3rd Degree ones, and communicate with these people to your heart’s content.  Now you’re pretty much confined to only dealing with 2nd Degree connections, if you’re a pro bono user.  They also used to allow you to see a much longer list of results when you ran a networking search on the “People Page” of the system.  Free users now, however, only see the first 100 names that come up — you have to pay to play if you want to see names further down the list.

Again, this is all completely understandable when you consider that LinkedIn 1) is a for-profit company; and 2) seems dead-set, at long last, on cashing in on their amazing technology.  These changes, however, are compelling me to revisit the question does the AVERAGE job hunter need to invest $20-30 a month for a paid subscription to the site?

In chatting with many clients about this issue, the general consensus seems to be that yes, unless an investment at this level would be a major hardship, we’ve reached the point where it’s wise to just “pay the piper” and get a paid LinkedIn subscription that will vault you past all the limitations and workarounds.  This tool has become such an indispensable part of networking for most people that it should be easy to justify a small investment in it, at least during the course of an active job search.  Calculate any reasonable number of what you feel your time is worth, and you’ll probably agree that forking over $20 is a lot more economical than spending 5-10 minutes, time and time again, trying to pry some well-guarded information out of the system.  I’m pretty thrifty, and trust me, I’ve reached that point myself!

Assuming you agree with this assessment, another key question arises.  Which subscription is the right one for you?  This issue is more challenging than meets the eye, since LinkedIn now offers at least 12 different types of accounts — geared at different user categories such as sales, recruiting, business, and job hunting — and each package comes with a slightly different mix of bells and whistles.  To compare the features available with each package, simply click on the “Upgrade Your Account” link you’ll find at the bottom of any LinkedIn page.

My own subjective take on the “paid” LinkedIn features most valuable to acquire?

Full Name Visibility: To me, this is hands-down the most USEFUL feature of all, since it allows you to see the full names — and make contact with– millions of people out on the periphery of your network.  Alas, this level of “executve” subscription runs $75/month

Premium Search Filters: If you know your way around “boolean syntax” rules you can replicate most of these search tools, for free, but these special filters also include several exclusive search options like the “Company Size” parameter that can be very useful

Profiles Per Search: As mentioned above, when you’re scouting around for appropriate people to network with (e.g. recruiters, hiring managers, potential customers) it’s very refreshing to not see the results page blocked after the first 100 results turn up

Who’s Viewed My Profile: I’m still not convinced it’s all that useful to know who’s “checked you out” on the system — but many people are dying of curiosity to learn this information, and no question about it, you’ll get a little more data on your visitors if you’re a paid user

Inmail/Company Introductions: While I still prefer the “Get Introduced” contact route whenever possible, I’ve had many clients use the “direct” InMail route to open doors with potential hiring managers, so having a few InMail chits in your quiver isn’t a bad idea

Featured Applicant Status: Theoretically, investing in a LinkedIn “Job Seeker” package is supposed to boost your profile higher up in the results when recruiters search for talent on the system; wish I could verify this for a fact, but if this is true, it’s a very valuable thing!

Job Seeker Badge: Lastly, if you’re looking for work openly, versus being in a confidential situation, the Job Seeker package allows you to display a little brown briefcase icon next to your profile to alert employers to your availability and help your profile catch a recruiter’s eye

Are the above features worth the required $20/month investment, if you’re a job hunter?  Yeah, I think we’re there.  You’ll be happy to have access to them and who knows, perhaps one of the more “passive” features will result in your profile showing up in front of just the right person, at just the right time.  I’ll confess, though, I’m not terribly sold on the bevy of OTHER benefits the site promotes as part of its premium subscriptions — things like the “Profile Organizer” and such, but I’m certainly open to hearing otherwise — if any of you out there wants to vouch for a piece of functionality I neglected to mention, above.

Any other thoughts on the paid vs. free debate?  Any comments, criticism, or observations from those of you out there who have been paid members longer than myself?

P.S.  LinkedIn frequently offers discounts on its subscription packages, too, so watch for special promotions — or possibly even contact the sales department to ask if any special deals are running, if you’re serious about potentially upgrading your account!