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For Job Seekers, Is LinkedIn Worth Paying For?

Since LinkedIn started signing up its first members back in May 2003, the professional social networking site has become an invaluable job search tool. With more than 175 million members in 200 countries, it  offers a single, heavily trafficked platform where recruiters and hiring managers search for talent and job seekers showcase their résumés and links to their work, hobbies and interests.

As my colleague George Anders points out in a recent post, the site wants members to update their profiles frequently, to make LinkedIn as useful as possible for recruiters. To lure members to spend time on the site, it now offers a newsfeed, LinkedIn Today, with aggregated content and pieces written by its own staff. There is also a new “Skills & Expertise” field where you can ask people who know your work to check off categories, like strategic planning or technical writing. It also recently started a stream of content from 150 “influencers” including billionaire Richard Branson and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel.

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As the site has evolved, a question has come up for job seekers: Should you pay for enhanced access to some of LinkedIn’s features? After talking to LinkedIn senior communications manager Krista Canfield and three of my job coach sources, and trying some experimental searches, my verdict is: probably not. I’ll run through LinkedIn’s pitch for why you should pay, and why I think it’s not worth it.

For job seekers, the site offers three different plans, for $20, $30 or $50 a month. If you buy a year’s worth of access, you get a slight discount. LinkedIn lays out the options here. You can also buy more expensive packages, like “Business Executive,” which costs $75 a month, billed annually. But if you’re out of a job, that’s expensive, and I would say, not worth the money.

Here are some of the reasons Canfield says paid membership is worthwhile for job seekers, what the coaches think, and my own verdict:

1. You can put a badge on your profile announcing that you’re looking for a job.  Canfield says this feature makes you more attractive to hiring managers. “It’s like having a ‘we’re open for business’ sign on your profile,” she says. But New York City career coach Sarah Stamboulie, who previously worked in human resources at Morgan Stanley, Nortel Networks and Cantor Fitzgerald, thinks this is a bad idea. “It makes you look pathetic,” she says.

Recruiters and hiring managers prefer to see that you are busy, even if it’s because you’re doing freelance work, rather than so available that you feel compelled to announce your unemployment status to the world. New York career coach Robert Hellmann, author of Your Social Media Job Search, feels less strongly than Stamboulie. “It’s maybe a good way to attract headhunters,” he says. “But is it worth paying for? I’d say no.” Hellmann agrees with Stamboulie that there remains a bias against people who are out of work.

I agree that the job seeker badge could do you more harm than good, and is not worth paying for.

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2. You will rise to the top of the pile when you apply for jobs through LinkedIn, and in searches by hiring managers. For recruiters and hiring managers looking for candidates on LinkedIn, “it’s like looking for a handyman on Google,” Canfield explains. “You could come up on the fiftieth page of applicants,” if you’re not a paying LinkedIn member. She insists it’s helpful to come up on the first page in such a search. But coaches Stamboulie and Hellmann say that most people do not use LinkedIn to find jobs this way. Stamboulie and Hellmann advocate a more proactive approach, where applicants target a company, search for a contact and try to get introduced through that contact, outside of LinkedIn.

Though it’s nice to be contacted by a hiring manager, I think it’s doubtful this feature will determine whether that happens for you. I can relate a recent personal experience: A hiring manager found me on LinkedIn and got in touch with me, interested in whether I would want to work at his consulting firm. I’m not a paying member and he tracked me down nonetheless.

3. You can see people who viewed your profile. If you’re a non-paying LinkedIn member, you have probably seen the box on the right-hand side of your profile page that says something like, “Your profile has been viewed by 5 people in the last 3 days.” Free members have the frustrating experience of clicking through this link and seeing only vague information, like “someone in the venture capital and private equity industry in New York City.” Click through that and you get ten profile links with another puzzling note, “one of these people viewed your profile.” Canfield says it’s valuable to be able to pinpoint who exactly looked at your profile. If it turns out that someone at a company where you want to work has checked you out, then you can reach out to that person.

But Stamboulie and Hellmann both dismiss the value of this option. Again, Hellmann says your stance should be proactive, rather than reacting to the people who are looking at your profile. “You shouldn’t be looking to see who’s looking at you,” he insists. Instead you should target a company where you want to work and try to get an introduction through someone you know. Stamboulie agrees. “It’s not a productive way to spend your time,” she says. “It’s like people who call back everyone who calls their cell phone.” Besides, if a recruiter or hiring manager has looked at your profile and decided not to contact you, then it’s probably not worth reaching out to that person.

I agree that this feature, though attractive on the surface, is not worth paying for.

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4. You can send LinkedIn “InMail” to members you want to contact. This option doesn’t apply to the $20/month job seeker package, but for $30 a month you can send five InMails per month, and if you don’t get a response, you can send more until you reach five InMails and responses. For the $50 plan, you get 10 InMails per month. Canfield insists this is an efficient way to reach people whose contact information you don’t have. Los Angeles career and executive coach David Couper agrees. He believes that emailing through LinkedIn is in a “sweet spot” at the moment. People are deluged with so much email nowadays, if they get an email through LinkedIn, they will take notice, he says. Canfield agrees.

Again, Stamboulie sees it differently. “To me it’s a last resort. It’s one up from spam,” she says. “The people who use it are lame.” I have to agree with Stamboulie that an InMail from a job seeker makes it look like that person can’t do the basic research of learning someone’s email address or finding a way to get in touch with the person through a mutual contact. One of the beauties of LinkedIn is that you can often find that a contact of yours knows the contact you’re trying to reach. I think it’s much more effective to use LinkedIn as a reference point, and then send a personal email outside of LinkedIn, either directly to the person, or to a mutual contact asking that they write an introductory note. If you have no connections to the person and you can’t dig up their email address, you can pay $10 to send a single InMail, through this link.

LinkedIn would like us to believe that sending notes through the LinkedIn system is the most effective way to reach out to people in a job search. But I still think a direct, personal approach is the best strategy and shows more initiative.

I learned a couple of other valuable LinkedIn tips from the job coaches. Unless you are a member who pays at least $75 a month, prepaid annually, or $100 a month, your search results will only show the first names and last initials of potential contacts, along with their job titles, unless they are already connected to you or they are second-degree connections to your primary network. There is a way around this. You can take the first name and last initial, and the job title, and plug that into Google. Voila, you will be directed to the person’s LinkedIn page, complete with last name.

One other piece of useful information: Do keep expanding your list of connections. LinkedIn lets you see the full profiles for people who are in your primary and secondary networks. Stamboulie notes that most of us have connected with enough people in our field, that other folks who come up in a search, will likely be connected with those we know, and that will give us access to their profiles.

I confess that there is one feature that mystifies me, and that Canfield could not clarify: As a free member, when I search for some profiles of people to whom I have no connection, I am able to see what look like full profiles. For other people, I see only the name and affiliation, with a note that says I must be a premium account holder in order to view the full profile. But Canfield explains that it is individual members who decide whether or not their profiles are available to be viewed by the public (go to your name in the upper right-hand area of the screen and click on “settings” in the pull-down menu).

If a paid membership makes it possible for you to read full profiles of people outside your network, I can see that this would be a useful tool, especially when preparing to meet someone for an interview. It’s good to know as much as you can in advance. But I see an easy work-around for this too: If you have a pending interview, send the interviewer a request to connect on LinkedIn. Of course you should modify the request with a personal note that could be as simple as “I’m looking forward to meeting you.”

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