What do Henry Fonda, Robin Williams, and Angelina Jolie have in common? Each of them shares a "Bacon number" of two, according to the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" trivia game. The premise is simple: Actor Kevin Bacon (of "Footloose," "Animal House" and "Flatliners" fame) is the center of the movie universe, and any actor who has appeared in film is linked to him by no more than six connections. The goal of the game is to link celebrities to Kevin Bacon in fewer than three connections.
For example, Actor Bela Lugosi (who died two years before Bacon was born) has a Bacon number of 3: Lugosi appeared in "Abbott and Costello Meet Franken-stein" (1948) with Vincent Price. Vincent Price appeared in "The Raven" (1963) with Jack Nicholson. And Jack Nicholson appeared in "A Few Good Men" (1992) with Kevin Bacon.
Amusing, but is it important? For you, as ISOs and merchant level salespeople, it could be. The Kevin Bacon game illustrates that we are all connected. And if you can unravel the right links, you can network with anyone.
Say you want an introduction to someone working at Safeway Inc.'s headquarters. You could call everyone you know and ask, "Do you know anyone at Safeway, or do you know anyone who knows anyone at Safeway?"
The odds are good that someone you know went to school with, once worked with or is a cousin of someone ensconced at Safeway's headquarters.
This old-style search process is inefficient. However, a number of Internet social networks _ LinkedIn, Jigsaw, ZoomInfo, MySpace and FaceBook for example _ have been created to help people develop online connections.
Of the current crop, LinkedIn is the most business-oriented, according to many business professionals. In essence, LinkedIn provides a way to compare address books and facilitate introductions to people you want to know through people you already know.
FaceBook, a prominent Internet social network, was originally limited to students. It tends to be more personal: notifying your peer group when you are single, or no longer single, for example, or listing favorite movies and music.
"We consider LinkedIn a professional network, rather than a social one," said Jane Corrigan, a LinkedIn spokesperson.
Unlike FaceBook and the social networking giant MySpace, which are largely populated by teenagers and "twenty-somethings," LinkedIn caters to older users, according to Corrigan.
Nearly 90% of LinkedIn members are between the ages of 25 and 54; their average household income is $139,000.
It's not that LinkedIn is strictly business. But you're not likely to share your photos from Burning Man there: Think cocktail party chat at an Electronic Transactions Association function, not your local singles bar.
The use of networks like LinkedIn has dramatically changed the way job seekers and headhunters operate.
Without appearing to be looking for a new position, job seekers can post detailed professional information and even testimonials from people who have worked with them. And headhunters can pinpoint people in specific positions and companies they want to "poach."
Increasingly, people are finding additional ways to mine their networks. They make sales, attract venture capital, hire employees, keep in touch with old friends, get recommendations for contractors, find surfing beaches in Australia and more.
"Social networks, in the broad category, are really evolving, particularly in terms of how corporations are making use of these tools," Corrigan said.
LinkedIn's basic service is free. It allows users to:
Corrigan believes having a Web presence is now vital for professionals in nearly every field and that a "robust" profile on LinkedIn provides that.
"One of the first things people do before doing business with someone now is google them," she said. "With your LinkedIn profile, you can put out the kind of information you want people to see, without sounding like you're bragging."
To get the most from LinkedIn, Corrigan recommends filling out a complete profile, including previous employers and school affiliations, so old friends and contacts can find you easily.
Registered users can invite others to join their networks by sending e-mail messages from LinkedIn's Web site. Those who accept the invitations are added to the users' first level connections, and their connections are added to the second level.
Corrigan said you generally need at least 20 connections to make good use of LinkedIn or a similar social network. A person with 20 connections typically has access to 250,000 LinkedIn members.
Other free features of LinkedIn include the ability to ask questions of people in your network or respond to jobs those individuals post.
For an additional fee, users can e-mail people who are not among their immediate contacts. Heavy users, like headhunters using LinkedIn to recruit talent, can choose premium plans costing from $60 to $2,000 a year.
Network introductions can thaw frigid calls. "I have been able to approach large name-brand companies about business development because of mutual connections," said Linda VandeVrede, a businesswoman.
"Calling or e-mailing 'cold' from the outside would have been impossible. Being in a network, in a sense, validates me," she said.
According to LinkedIn, all Fortune 500 companies are represented on LinkedIn; 499 of them are represented by director-level and above employees.
"We have more than 13 million members, with 1.4 million C-level _ CEO, CIO, CTO, and so on _ executives who are members," Corrigan said.
"LinkedIn is valuable because it provides a tool for finding contacts or expertise in areas where we're not necessarily connected," said Paul Robicheaux, a founder of 3Sharp, a technical services company.
"For example, say I want to know about a particular market segment in depth, or I want to ask an alumnus what he thought of a given M.B.A. program or I want to find someone who works for Company X; LinkedIn makes it easy.
"I've used it to find contacts at famously opaque companies like Apple, as well as contacts at companies I didn't even know existed."
A controversial issue among members of online social networks is the debate about open networking versus careful connectors.
The careful connectors say LinkedIn's greatest value (many connections) is also its greatest flaw: If you let one reckless outsider into your network, you've polluted it.
They feel that many of the connectors with 500 or more first-generation connections are "connection collectors" like the young people on MySpace who simply want to inflate their number of "friends" to demonstrate their popularity.
These detractors question the integrity of introductions provided by first-level connections whom you barely know. "The value of networks like LinkedIn and FaceBook relates directly to the effort people put into their networks," said Bill Doern, Principal of Sum Inc., a consultancy. "Acquiring names is worthless."
Just like friendship, he believes, the relationship is meaningful if it is developed. "These social networks could be amazingly powerful," but they currently "just offer an insight into the beginning of a relationship," he said.
LinkedIn, which can attribute some of its success to a legacy of perceived exclusivity that has led to large numbers of high-level executives joining, is trying hard to foster a careful connections viewpoint among its members.
Corrigan recommends linking only with those you know. "The beauty of it is that you probably know more people than you think," she said.
"But we encourage people not to be promiscuous about their connections. The quality is more important than the quantity."
Open networking proponents argue that the larger your network, the more likely you are to quickly find the kind of help you need. They maintain that if you are willing to help someone in your network when requested, it doesn't matter if you have five connections or 500. They point out that face-to-face networkers often work the room at an event and connect with people they didn't know before the event. Yet they are not labeled reckless or undiscerning.
Open networkers often list complete e-mail addresses in their profile names to signal they are open to all invitations. (LinkedIn hides e-mail addresses from anyone outside a member's immediate network.)
Many people are undecided about the issue. "I occasionally get linkage requests from people I don't know, and I don't feel obligated to accept them, but usually I do," Robicheaux said.
"Why? For the same reason I accept business cards when I meet people at face-to-face events: a) it's polite and b) that person may turn out to be a very useful contact."
Consultant Bruce Kane said he is "on the promiscuous-connector side of the fence. I accept 'boilerplate' connections from anyone, though I only send invitations to people I know well."
He does, however, appreciate the careful connectors' point of view. "I can see why one would want to have a tightly knit group of people where you know everyone in your network well," he said.
"However, I don't understand why they would feel that my connections with people I know well _ current and former colleagues, clients, fellow Dale Carnegie classmates and the like _ are weakened by me being connected with thousands of other people I don't know much at all.
"You never know when a connection will turn out to be very useful."
Online social networks are also an efficient way to stay in touch with friends and colleagues with whom you speak infrequently.
When you update your profile page, your connections have instant access to your new e-mail address, for example, or can see where you currently work.
"Social networks are a great way to indirectly maintain contact with those people you rarely talk to, yet may play an important part of your life or career," said Erik Sebellin-Ross, Senior Account Executive with Peppercom, a strategic communications firm.
Updating your FaceBook profile automatically alerts everyone in your network to your change, Sebellin-Ross noted. "That reminds them of who you are and what you're up to," he said. "So, if you ever need to contact them to learn if they know of job opportunities, you don't deal with the awkwardness of coming out of nowhere."
LinkedIn user Jim Parker was attracted to LinkedIn because it provided the opportunity to locate contacts with whom he had lost touch.
"I have changed industries a number of times over the decades," he said.
"As e-mail basically did not exist as it does today during most of that, and they are from various other geographical regions, this seemed the only viable way to find many of them without putting extensive energy into it."
In addition to enjoying LinkedIn's business networking features, users are discovering myriad ways to mine their networks.
They post questions seeking advice about business dilemmas, references for good car mechanics, suggestions for upcoming vacation spots, and ideas for good neighborhoods or doctors when moving to a new locale.
"I travel often and hate to eat by myself," Parker said. "So I search my LinkedIn contacts to see who lives in an area before I go, so I can meet up with former co-workers and associates."
Before tradeshows, Parker sends out LinkedIn queries to see who else in his network is planning to attend. Then he schedules meetings around meals. "It's a great way to meet new people and eliminates some of the boredom of being on the road all of the time," he said.
Kane noted that a couple of months ago, he and his wife were in the Los Angeles area and wanted tickets to see Craig Ferguson (current host of CBS's "The Late Show") but couldn't obtain them through the show's Web site.
"So I reached out to my network and found a second-degree connection who is a writer for the show," Kane said. "I sent an introduction through one of my first-degree connections."
A few hours later, Kane spoke to the writer, who was happy to give him tickets to the show. Kane believes this would not have occurred if he hadn't used his LinkedIn connections.
Doern took online networking in an entrepreneurial direction. He had highly desirable season tickets to the Ottawa Senators hockey games. So he announced to his online network that he would take one stranger to each game if that stranger could convince Doern that he had something useful to share.
"I've found that people have a lot to share, and usually all you have to do is ask," Doern said. "Some really unique people applied. I ended up having some fascinating conversations with people I wouldn't have ordinarily run into.
"I took a couple media people and learned a lot about how to approach the media. But mostly I invited entrepreneurs. When you are an entrepreneur, you often work in a vacuum.
"You learn by your mistakes, but we're all traveling the same road, facing the same problems, and it seemed like we could learn form each other's mistakes.
"Frankly, hiring consultants can be expensive, and the results aren't always as pragmatic as advice from someone who's been through it."
Using online social networks takes effort and courage. And like face-to-face networking, the more you give the more you get.
Joining an electronic social network could enable you to connect within minutes to people in Seattle, Ottawa, Moscow or New Delhi who may need your payment processing services or expertise. Is it worth a few mouse clicks to find out?
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