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We go networking with Plaxo and LinkedIn

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Review Have you ever received an email from a “colleague” or “friend” inviting you to join some online "club" or other, offering all kinds of benefits to members? Perhaps, like me, you tend to regard such messages with suspicion. However, my temptation to take a look at some of these online services eventually became too great when I found myself bed-bound through a minor illness. I decided to take the plunge and see what all the fuss was about. What's the worst thing that could happen, I thought, I can always switch them off.

In the months that followed, I cleaned out my email, sorted my address books and grew a network of over a million potential contacts - and here's how...

Of all the networking tools available, two had caught my attention: Plaxo and LinkedIn. I had no idea what, if any, were the differences between the two, apart from the fact that Plaxo kept sending me business cards, and LinkedIn requests for participation. Both purported to help me maintain my contacts, and both offered some kind of facility that connected to Microsoft Outlook, so I thought I’d have a crack at each.

The first tool I tried was LinkedIn. I quickly determined its main function was to maintain a list of online connections between people (in a “degrees of separation” kind of way), based on names and email addresses. It won’t give out details or enable direct communications – indeed, it assumes you know the email of the person you want to connect with, and it uses your own email as transport for its messages, which has to be a good thing. Once connected – you can see the basic details of people your colleagues know – so if Fred is “linkedin” to Jemima, Fred can see all the people Jemima knows. If Fred wants to contact Charlie, who is also “linkedin” to Jemima, Fred can ask Jemima to forward a message. Apart from the deplorable invention of new terminology, this struck me as a simple and effective facility.

Worth a go, I thought. As it transpired, the facility offered by LinkedIn not only scanned my address book, but could run through any past emails to trawl for contacts. I had been on the point of paying for such a tool only months before, and here it was for free – one point in LinkedIn’s favour and I hadn’t even run the thing yet. For anyone as disorganised as I am, such a tool is worth its weight. I set it onto my email, and it found a good 1500 people and put them into a separate contacts folder. Of course, some were defunct and others repeated entries already in my address book. I had to spend a good hour or so cleaning out the new contacts, but it was a start.

Back on the LinkedIn website, meanwhile, there is a tool that can upload names and email addresses from Outlook and check whether they already exist as members of LinkedIn. To my surprise, a good hundred of my contacts already were. However, it was only after I painstakingly went through the entire list that I discovered the option to list only the people that were already LinkedIn members. Minus one house point on usability, I thought, as I sent out invitations. Almost immediately, responses started to come in. I felt I had joined some kind of club.

Dredging

With LinkedIn up and running, it was time to try Plaxo. This also had an email dredging facility, with different options to the LinkedIn tool, so it turned up many more contacts. As it was executing (and once again adding duplicates to my address book), I regretted not having run the two tools in parallel. Live and learn - it is probably worth noting that de-duping an address book is a passable activity while watching the TV in the evening.

Plaxo works as a kind of clearing house for business cards. In a similar way to LinkedIn, it manages an online repository of people, but the similarity ends there. Plaxo’s main function is to allow you to update your own details and share them with others – a change in your own “business card” will be replicated across the address books of online users who “know” you. Plaxo can be accessed on- or offline, giving you a web-based address book which is as up to date as the people using it. No more emails to people telling them your new details – change them once and Plaxo does the rest: that’s the theory, anyway.

One other thing you can do with Plaxo is to send a mail-out to your address book requesting that people update their own details. This is simple, powerful, and downright scary – did I really want to send an email to everyone I’d ever met? Given that my now-straight address book contained over 2,000 addresses (it was touching 3,000 before I cleared it out), I decided to take the plunge and mail it to everybody, rather than some arbitrary subset. I had the perfect excuse – I was writing an article, I said, it was for research purposes. Plaxo allowed me to customise the message I sent out, and I carefully explained my purpose. Besides, I had received Plaxo requests from others, and they were only a minor inconvenience compared to the rest of the spam. “OK”, I clicked, and off it went. Rather cleverly, Plaxo totally ignored what I written and sent out a standard, vanilla email. Hum.

Before long, responses started to come in, lots of them. "You have 20 new alerts", came a message from Plaxo; "You have 38 new alerts”. As my hard disk started to clatter, I realised my address book was being updated automatically, based on the information being sent back to me. As Plaxo went about its business, all I could do was listen to the chatter, and hope the software knew what it was doing. Despite my unease, I could not think of a better way of achieving this goal.

Plenty of the email messages bounced – there was no recipient to comment, never mind fix up the details (exacerbated by my use of a dodgy business card scanner a couple of years ago). While Plaxo was good at telling me why emails were bouncing, the tool to fix any errors (to write “.com”, rather than “.corn” for example) was not brilliantly useful. At this point, I realised I’d been premature running LinkedIn, as I now had a whole bunch of new names and emails to fire at it. In hindsight, I would have collected all of the contacts from my email in one go, using both programs. This would avoid sending out multiple update requests to the same people. I would also have got my address book properly in order, before hitting either the Plaxo or the LinkedIn button.

Benefit of hindsight

Hindsight is a wonderful thing however, and I was not done yet. It was a long time since I’d used that business card scanner, and I had built up several boxes of cards requiring scanning. The scanner was not perfect, but it did manage to pull in names, email addresses and phone numbers, sufficient for either Plaxo or LinkedIn. Again, a good way to pass time in front of the TV, but as I started looking for duplicates, once again I realised I’d been premature in sending out requests.

Finally, I was done with collecting addresses. I had all my past and present contacts in Outlook and looking remarkably up to date; I had sent out requests by Plaxo for any changes, and I had “linkedin” to a couple of hundred people. So, was it worth it? Whereas LinkedIn felt more like a colleague, a useful adjunct, Plaxo gave the impression of an overbearing Aunt, who had arrived for the week and had proceeded to organise my life. However, I had to admit, such organisation was necessary and I was better for it. The amount of negative feedback had been minimal – then again, perhaps I’d never hear it.

While Plaxo’s chuntering work was largely done, LinkedIn was about to start. All these contacts, all these connections – it felt like I’d joined an exclusive club of the online. However, this was more a quiet cathedral than a boisterous bazaar. LinkedIn advertises itself as the path to employment riches, as a sales tool and a general guarantee of hooking up with the great and the good. So far, in reality over the past few months, I could count the number of requests to pass on information on one hand. Unsurprising – for me, LinkedIn provides a social tool that can facilitate relationships, but not a magic mechanism for generating sales or finding a new career.

Each will find their own balance, and for some there is more to these tools than I’ll ever catch on to. People like the aptly named Thomas Power, who has set his goal to be the most connected person on the internet. Suffice it to say, that when I sent him an email, I didn't get a reply, and frankly, why should I have done? Others, like the self-styled maven Alan McKelworth (www.headhunter.co.uk) were more forthcoming. “Joining LinkedIn is like attending a network event,” says Alan. “Establishing strategically with whom you want to establish stronger personal relationships, auditing what you have done to date, determine tactical actions, develop soft skills and then work the plan.” In other words, there’s plenty more to these tools, if you’re the kind of person who would be doing that sort of thing anyway.

The tools themselves seem to offer a pragmatic balance of privacy against the desire to communicate (though of course, I can only speak for Plaxo and LinkedIn). I know that all my address has been uploaded to a theoretically hackable database, somewhere in the ether, but it contains no more information than in the emails I’ve sent; besides, it is not exactly like positioning a WebCam in the bathroom. Security is about risk management, and given the number of other databases around the world containing mine and others’ information, I don’t feel I have significantly added to the level of risk by offloading my address book to a reputedly secure area.

Money, money, money

Finally, there is the issue of money. While I can understand how LinkedIn can make money (though it doesn’t appear to be making much from me), I cannot say the same for Plaxo unless it starts charging a subscription for its service. It does offer a paid-for online support service, which may be enough to pay its own bills and satisfy its own its own shareholders, but I doubt it.

Plaxo and LinkedIn are not the only facilities of this type. There are purely social networks (www.hi5.com), professional groups (www.askmynetwork.com) and others which seem to exist for the joy of getting lots of people in the same place (www.ecademy.com). For all their good intentions, all must be working out how they can generate a profit. For some, there is the easy win of adding advertising on their web pages. Others are trying the P&L (Plaxo and LinkedIn) routes, looking to take some kind of cut from any deals that are made, setting themselves up as recruitment agents or offering charge for support. Nobody seems to be doing the most obvious thing which is to ask people to pay for a subscription. Given the potential benefits, not least that the general feeling of camaraderie, I wouldn't be against shelling out a couple of quid a month to keep things going. Nobody has yet asked me for this, so I shall hold onto my money for the time being. My bet is nobody yet wants to risk the possibility of losing their subscribers to another such facility, through charging too much, or too early.

I shall continue to use these tools, and even recommend them to my friends. Ultimately however, they exist to serve people’s needs and they can’t create communication where it has no intention of existing. Meanwhile, if ever you need to get in touch, you know where you can find me!

Copyright © 2005,

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