Gone are the days of attending a local business networking event with a pocket full of business cards and some interesting conversation topics to break the ice. The professional social networking site LinkedIn has a community of more than 80 million people - equal to the populations of Great Britain and Australia combined - with a new person joining every second.
It doesn't take long for the average user to discover that the scope for networking and business bridge-building on LinkedIn is limitless. However, signing up to LinkedIn is much like joining a gym. It holds great potential for positive change, but it isn't a passive process. If you want to see results, you'll actually have to put in some elbow grease.
David Wilkins is a director of ICI, an IT and telecoms recruitment consultancy in Dubai Internet City. Since hearing about LinkedIn in early 2006, he says it has become one of his most important and well-used work tools. "I was introduced to LinkedIn by a colleague who had just arrived in the UAE from the UK. I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of it before. As soon as he told me about it, I could see how valuable it could be."
Mr Wilkins set up a profile and started connecting with his old colleagues. With a little creativity, he realised he could quickly build a comprehensive, database of high-quality connections.
"At that time, it was quite easy to find ways of connecting with people you didn't know personally," Mr Wilkins says. "I identified all of the IT companies that I wanted to do business with and started inviting hundreds and hundreds of people. In no time at all, I had built up a strong network. Eventually, LinkedIn started monitoring rejections so they could tell if people were inviting randomly rather than only inviting people they actually knew, which made it more difficult."
Soon after, Mr Wilkins signed up to become a paying member of LinkedIn, known as an InUser. Membership will set you back between US$25 (Dh92) and $100 per month, depending on which grade you opt for, and includes access to the whole network, priority placement in search results and the opportunity to contact people you don't have a common connection with.
"I now have 2,189 primary connections, which link me to a total of 16.5 million LinkedIn members around the world within three degrees of separation," Mr Wilkins says. "Even though all of our placements go through the same stringent headhunting, interview and evaluation process, I would say that about 30 per cent of the candidates we place are initially identified through LinkedIn."
Richard George, the European PR manager for LinkedIn, says the networking site has a fast-growing membership in the UAE. "There are almost half a million members in the UAE," Mr George says.
"The international nature of LinkedIn makes it a very valuable tool for expats and other internationally minded professionals. If you have an eye on your career, you can benefit from and find value in LinkedIn, whatever industry you may be in."
Another LinkedIn convert is the US-based networking, marketing and training consultant Rick Itzkowich, who is commonly referred to as "The LinkedIn Guy".
"I was a LinkedIn user like everybody else," he says. "I joined up and did nothing with it. But when the recession hit, out of necessity I needed to generate more business for my company. I started thinking about using LinkedIn, but I couldn't find any information online about how to do it."
Mr Itzkowich spent approximately 2,500 hours on LinkedIn over the course of six months and ended up becoming an expert. "I started giving advice and making referrals, helping people to see that it is not just for jobseekers - it can be a gold mine if you know how to use it right."
As respect for the power of social networking booms, demand for Mr Itzkowich's LinkedIn expertise is also growing. On a week-long trip to the UAE recently, Mr Itzkowich presented to more than 550 people over six sessions about harnessing the power of LinkedIn. Almost 20 per cent of attendees immediately signed up to his Personal LinkedIn Coach programme. "There are only two reasons to be on LinkedIn: to find and to be found," says Mr Itzkowich.
Finding people is pretty simple for our search-engine generation. But what about being found? "In the same way that a spider lures prey into its web, your LinkedIn strategy should be about attracting people by having an interesting profile."
According to Mr Itzkowich, not only does your profile need to be up-to-date with work and education details, but you should use the right words in certain areas to ensure that you show up in searches for your skill set.
Prime areas for search words and phrases include your 160-word headline, current job details, past job details and specialities.
The next step is to put a face to your persona with a good photo. "People want to connect with a real person and to make sure that the profile is legitimate," he says. "Having a photo will lend you credibility. If you don't have a photo, people will assume a lot of things about you - none of them good. It's all about being transparent, genuine and human."
Tiffany Schulz, a freelance photographer based in Dubai, says she is often commissioned by people wanting a professional shot for their social networking profile. "Social-media networking is such a huge part of our lives now and your profile picture is accessible by everyone," she says. "So it is important to be aware of the image you are presenting. This is especially true on LinkedIn."
Ms Schulz recommends making sure that you use a good-quality photo with adequate lighting. You should be standing at a 45-degree angle to the camera, but making eye contact with it.
Wear neutral or block colours rather than patterns and stand in front of a clean background. "But even more important than good lighting and a good background is that you are smiling. Being photogenic is all about looking confident in yourself," she says.
Ms Schulz says if you are going to be taking your own profile picture, some cameras are better than others. She points to the Canon Ixus 1000, which has both a smile detection and a wink-detection setting, doing away with traditional timer settings.
The camera also has a screen that flips out and twists 180 degrees, so even when you are in front of the camera, you can see how the picture looks.
The final piece in your profile puzzle, says Mr Itzkowich, is to build up a stock of official recommendations. Not only will this attract people to your profile, it will also give them a reason to trust you and approach you with business ideas, collaborations and new projects.
With an enticing profile simply waiting to be discovered, it's time to charge up your network contacts and make connections. However, Mr Itzkowich stresses that simply befriending people is not good enough; you will need to build strong bonds and alliances if people are to send business your way.
"If you don't build relationships, your network will just be empty numbers. You need to bring a pay-it-forward attitude, or what I like to call 'relationship capital'. What can you give to the community before you start withdrawing from it?"
Opportunities to pay in to the LinkedIn community may come in the form of recommendations, referrals, making introductions, joining groups, offering advice and sharing information.
"I use LinkedIn as a database by posting questions out to my network," Mr Itzkowich says.
"You wouldn't believe the wealth of knowledge and support that comes flowing back. But when you do this, remember to close the question and to thank people for their answers. Minding your manners will separate you from the rest ... I've found LinkedIn to be a very generous and giving bunch of people. If you are helpful and contribute to the community yourself, they will respond positively."