Tim Johnson grew up in Elk River, served in the Air Force and later chased his dream to be a radio personality by taking requests in studios as far away as Alaska and as near as KCLD-FM in St. Cloud.
A self-described online technology addict, he began to integrate social media into his career 10 years ago when he developed a MySpace page as the night disc jockey for a top-40 station in Anchorage.
"I didn't know what I was doing, but it gave me a chance to interact with people in a different way," said Johnson, 36, who has since completed undergraduate and graduate programs in mass communications at St. Cloud State University. Last year, Johnson became a graphics and communications specialist and social media trainer for Resource Training & Solutions. "I could build a lot of connections instead of counting on people to use the call line."
He later progressed along with the technology to Facebook and Twitter. There, he learned the delicate balance of marketing and advertising in communications -- and how to make an ad not sound so much like an ad.
Increasingly, though, he's learned a lot about what other people are coming to know: When it comes to business and careers, the best online networking tool available may be LinkedIn, a publicly held diversified business model with revenues coming from member subscriptions, advertising sales and talent solutions.
"I think you have to look at some of these tools (as if they were) specialty cable channels," Johnson said. "Facebook is about your home life. Twitter is like happy hour, and LinkedIn is strictly business. To me, it's become the most important way to network, find jobs and research potential employers. With 60 percent of them using social media to vet the hiring process, LinkedIn can make a difference up to the interview level if your profile matches up well with your resume."
More than a resume, though, LinkedIn profiles can showcase your work. You can post photos and link to examples of your best work. You can't do that on a one-page resume.
According to The Wall Street Journal, 60 percent of small-business owners say they believe social media tools are valuable to their companies' growth. But just 3 percent said Twitter had the most potential to help their organization.
LinkedIn topped The Wall Street Journal survey, with 41 percent singling it out as most beneficial to their company. By comparison, 16 percent chose YouTube and 14 percent picked Facebook.
The same survey also pointed out most business owners don't have anyone dedicated to social media campaigns, and one-third of businesses spend no time on social media at all.
Since 2008, LinkedIn has let small- and medium-sized businesses create free company pages. It has about 2.6 million organizations with an active profile, though it's impossible to discern how many are large corporations or small businesses.
"Whatever they're doing, they're doing it right," Johnson said.
On Feb. 7, LinkedIn announced its financial results for 2012. Revenue increased 86 percent to $972.3 million from $522.2 million. In 2013, that number is expected to top $1.4 billion.
But it's not only job seekers who are using LinkedIn. Bruce Hagberg is owner and CEO of riteSOFT, a St. Cloud-based company that develops commercial data collection software for manufacturing and distribution companies. He has used business-centric social media -- such as Praxon, Spoke and Jigsaw -- for more than eight years. He's come to the conclusion that LinkedIn is more relevant than anything to come along so far.
"I don't consider myself a power user, but I use LinkedIn every single business day," said Hagberg, who has written articles about the benefits of LinkedIn and Skype in the corporate world. "I can't say that about Facebook or any other social media tool, though there are similarities with Facebook in how you can make instant connections and how you put on your page how you want to represent yourself."
"It's a great equalizer because you get to choose who you are and what you say about yourself," said Hagberg, who got on LinkedIn more than six years ago. LinkedIn launched in 2003 and now has more than 200 million users -- including executives from every Fortune 500 company.
"People might fluff up their resume, but you're less likely to do that on LinkedIn because you're connected with people who know you," he added. "It's still possible to lie, but it's harder. And, to another person looking at you, the better your connections the better your brand reputation."
Targeted advertising is helping to fuel LinkedIn's rise. RiteSOFT is just one example. Hagberg's company advertises on LinkedIn but only to a group that is interested in bar coding and labor collection technology.
Hagberg said the ads cost little for riteSOFT, which pays only when people click on their banner. That takes users to a video demo of its products. And Hagberg is happy to pay a little to get people who work in or are otherwise interested in his industry that far.
"I can't point to a closed sale yet, but it's produced many solid leads," he said. "Time will tell. Overall, however, I can say LinkedIn has brought us money. Otherwise I wouldn't be on it."
You never know how it might pay off. A few years ago, Hagberg was doing market research on LinkedIn. He found a consultant in the United Kingdom who belonged to the same LinkedIn interest group. Hagberg initiated contact and received a response in seconds. After subsequently communicating via Skype, Hagberg had a reseller partner that now has about a dozen riteSOFT customers.
While a basic LinkedIn account is free, upgraded plans range from $19.95 per month to $74.95 per month. The extra charges allow users to know who has viewed their profile, access profiles for anyone in their network, search references and send direct messages. Basic accounts restrict activity to close connections.
Both Johnson and Hagberg use the free service, which is the level more than 90 percent of members have. Johnson estimates about 8 percent of LinkedIn consumers use the pay levels of the service. He said 70 million of the users are in the United States.
"That represents about half of the American work force," Johnson said. "You can use it to learn of job openings you might be interested in. You can look at the resume of the person who has a job you want and see how you compare. The things you have in common are the things you'd want to make bullet points in any communication with an employer."
Johnson said his communications professors advised college students to delete their Facebook accounts and open one on LinkedIn.
"If you've got pictures of yourself on Facebook with a beer bong at the beach, it's probably pretty sage advice," Johnson said. "I've got my Facebook account locked as tight as possible and my LinkedIn profile as open as possible."
Johnson also advises following company pages. You might find a job posting or run across someone you know who knows someone who works there.
"If you can get a personal introduction, that helps keep you in consideration," he said. "On the other hand, you might find out about someone's reputation you would potentially be working with and decide that's not a place you want to work. That's just as important as finding a place you want to work."
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