"Nuisance. I hate 'em and hate when people ask me to join. I ignore them mostly," says Jeffrey Broadhurst of Broadhurst Financial Advisors, Inc., Lansdale, Pa., with 16 contacts on LinkedIn.

"I have not found a way to use [business networking sites] to my advantage yet. Sometimes I wonder what's the fuss," says George Papadopoulos, CPA/PFS, CFP, in Novi, Mich., with 120 contacts on LinkedIn and a presence on Plaxo, as well.

These two advisors are referring to invitations they received from business networking sites, of which LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com) and Plaxo (http://www.plaxo.com) are the two best known. Still in the dark? Ever heard of Friendster? Perhaps not, but you've undoubtedly heard of MySpace. Then here's the progression ... Friendster is a "social networking site" founded in March 2002 that influenced or directly spawned the development of both social and business networking sites. MySpace, for example, was birthed in August 2003 and, by mid-2006, had opened 100 million accounts. For what purpose?  To allow its users-mostly teens-to create "profiles" customized with photos, background music, uploaded videos, blogs, e-mail and other communication tools in order to attract to their MySpace pages a collection of "friends."

The success of MySpace certainly inspired Facebook, an early-2004 social networking site aimed at a slightly older crowd-college students-that has expanded to include anyone over the age of 13. Facebook extended the social networking paradigm by allowing users to join networks based upon commonalities such as schools attended, employers and geographical proximity.

Simultaneously with MySpace, the business world was catching on with the development of sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo. Both sites boast 20 million-plus users, and LinkedIn is said to be growing annually by almost 500%. The problem, as demonstrated by Broadhurst's and Papadopoulos' remarks, is that many users who've merely dipped their toes in the water still don't understand exactly why they want to go in the water at all; perhaps they just have a nagging belief that when these sites' potential is revealed to them, their free memberships will have them poised to tap into it. (That is, unless they've become overburdened with connection invitations; Bill Gates recently canceled his account with Facebook, in which he is an investor, when he began receiving more than 8,000 friend requests a day).

The Vision

Some might say LinkedIn and Plaxo aren't doing a particularly good job of communicating their vision if so many users are so in the dark; others might say it's a moot point because the sites' inherent viral marketing capabilities seem to have both sites reaching the proverbial "tipping point" right about now. We've been through the period where early-adopting techies and PC publications have reviewed the sites online, we've progressed to where few people haven't received at least a handful of invitations, and we're now at the stage of triple-digit growth.

So let's dig in and see what we've got. First, what do these sites do and how do they compare? The original vision for LinkedIn, says Krista Canfield, LinkedIn's public relations manager, was "to create a place where professionals could network, learn new things, collaborate, and make and receive introductions. With 21 million members, there's a good chance someone out there can answer your question, too," says Canfield, referring to LinkedIn's "Answers" feature, whereby users can search for answers to questions by experts on the network. "There's a pay-it-forward mentality," says Canfield, "whereby one person helps another, knowing someone else will, in turn, help him later on."   

While the vision hasn't changed, it has grown. "We just issued LinkedIn Mobile for Smartphones [visit m.linkedin.com with your phone's browser], as well as Company Profiles," a company-level profiling system much like that for individual users. In general, says Canfield, user and company profiles are handy for getting background on folks one is considering doing business with; the mobile feature makes it that much more powerful. If you need info on a person you're about to meet with outside the office and he's a LinkedIn user, that information is available to you via your phone.

That's just a snapshot of LinkedIn which, like Plaxo, has so many bells and whistles that advisors should plan on spending at least a few hours to acquaint themselves with all its features. John McCrea, Plaxo's vice president of marketing, discussed the company's vision: "Plaxo, LinkedIn and even Facebook are uniquely building businesses around who you know. The first wave was strangers connecting to each other as 'friends,' but Plaxo has always been about linking to people you already know."

Plaxo's original vision, he explained, was to help users keep addresses up-to-date because we all struggle to keep current contact info for our friends, clients and business contacts. Plaxo turns this around and says-let everyone keep their own contact information up-to-date in a Web-centric location so everyone they network with will have the most current information at all times. Plaxo even syncs directly with the user's desktop installation of Outlook to keep it updated, too.

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