How big is your online Rolodex?

Executives are increasingly using such networking sites as Facebookand LinkedInto establish business contacts and recruit clients, blurring the lines between social and corporate networking.

Some might have dozens or hundreds of people in their networks on these sites. Then there are the super-connectors, who have thousands and thousands of people in their networks.

Andrew Filipowski, the chief executive of SilkRoad Technology, is one such super-connector; in his words, he's an "acceptance slut" when it comes to LinkedIn invitations. He is the second-most connected person in the LinkedIn universe, with 24,657 contacts. He is also a Facebook member.

Yet networking was not Filipowski's primary motive for joining LinkedIn in 2003.

"I wanted to learn all I could about social networking-its nuances, its pluses and minuses," says Filipowski, whose Winston-Salem, North Carolina, company creates human-resources and employee software. "I thought that way I would be better able to adapt and incorporate ideas for my own products. I see LinkedIn-and now Facebook-as a watercooler experience on steroids."

The king of the super-connectors is Ron Bates, a California-based recruiter who has a staggering 33,789 connections on LinkedIn. He plays down his top-of-the-charts status and says only that his motivation for accumulating so many contacts is to "establish goodwill" by leveraging his vast database to help others make connections.

As a recruiter in Silicon Valley, Bates spends about 75 percent of his day networking offline, finding and placing executives, mostly in the technology sector. He devotes about an hour a day to LinkedIn. Bates says he has little time for outside professional groups and doesn't see LinkedIn as a site where social and business networking meet.

LinkedIn, which has 12 million users, says it discourages people from becoming super-connectors because the practice dilutes the site's mission of creating connections between "trusted colleagues."

One reason for this attitude might be that being super-connected doesn't necessarily translate into being more successful. Bates, for one, says that while being No. 1 may have raised his online profile and that of his company, Executive Advantage, he gets very few clients from the service.

"To have a goal of accumulating the most contacts is kind of ludicrous," he says. "Some people can benefit with fewer contacts; my goal is that more is better. It's not a contest. My life will go on whether LinkedIn goes on or not."

Indeed, the vast size of the networks that the top super-connectors have put together seem to defeat the purpose of building them in the first place.

"The problem with super-connecting or promiscuous connecting is that you make contacts that you don't know very well," says David Teten, co-author of The Virtual Handshake. "People may be uncomfortable referring someone because they're not a meaningful connection. Some see it as a chance to be more visible-like being most popular."

And yet sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, which says it has more than 31 million members, offer some real advantages to executives looking to make professional connections.

Take Steve Bergin, a New York-based recruiter in the broadcasting and media industries. Bergin was having a tough time tracking down a digital-business executive who had recently changed jobs and relocated from the West Coast. A colleague recommended that Bergin try reaching him on Facebook.

Sure enough, Bergin found the executive on Facebook, and he was surprised to find that his message was promptly returned the next morning. It didn't translate into a job placement, but he was able to resume a potentially beneficial business relationship.

Bergin, with 109 connections on LinkedIn, is not a super-connector. But Marc Freedman, a chief executive in Dallas in who has 12,827 LinkedIn connections (No. 21 on the site), definitely is, and he says that these online connections have made a difference in the way he does business.

Freedman's company, DallasBlue Business Network, is a networking outfit that organizes seminars, meetings, and happy hours in the Dallas area, so extending his brand to the online world was a natural transition. He finds LinkedIn a more intimate way of networking than briefly exchanging business cards with a stranger at a convention.

"If I meet someone at a business meeting, I may get a few minutes to talk to them," he says. "But it's an isolated communication and quickly forgotten. With LinkedIn, I get rich background from their profile, plus I see our mutual connections."

"It takes place in a deep and personal way," he adds. Freedman has even created a website, MyLink500.com, that tracks the ups and downs of LinkedIn's super-connectors.

For executives like Filipowski, who have other social and charitable commitments, nothing compares to their "real-world" contacts. A gregarious man, Filipowski is a frequent public speaker on entrepreneurship, a board member and trustee at the University of North Carolina, and chairman of the board at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicines. He is also a co-owner of the Winston-Salem Warthogs baseball team, a Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.

Nearly 80 percent of his LinkedIn contacts have come from other people's invitations, he estimates. Yet he also acknowledges that he has met people through LinkedIn that he would not have otherwise.

One such meeting was with a Canadian man with bipolar disorder who was having difficulty getting a job and supporting his family. Filipowski says he was able to assist the man in finding employment and the connection has evolved into an online friendship.

"I've considered LinkedIn a fortunate waste of time," Filipowski says. "I didn't start out to network, but I accidentally met some folks along the way."

 

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