Social media is revolutionizing the art and convenience of networking. No longer do you need to rely on paying and attending multiple association events (which can be costly) to get in front of potential prospective customers, colleagues, and friends. Now you can do it at your convenience in your own home, at any hour of the day. LinkedIn is a premier business networking channel that is great for reconnecting with people, opening the door for job opportunities, recommending and introducing people you trust and like doing business with, researching who’s who and following companies, accessing your competitor’s network if available, and more. A very robust tool whether you’re looking for a job, scouting talent or data mining for sales efforts.

The question becomes, is it worth spending money to upgrade your account?

There are a few tricks on how to access “protected” information without upgrading. For example, John Doe did not want his full last name exposed on his public profile and when searching through LinkedIn his name comes up as John D., CEO at Widget Co. Tip of the day: Copy and paste the first name, title and company listed on the profile in Google search and John Doe’s full name and profile link will pop up.

You can also view who is looking at your profile if you adjust your profile settings, which can be hidden and unhidden if you’re in sleuth mode. If you find a lot of value of knowing all the detail of who’s looking at your profile, you may want to upgrade. The information you’re able to view is based off the profile setting of the individual viewing your profile, so some information you can see for free, other information you cannot with the free version.

InMail, which some people block, is a direct email feature that you only get if you upgrade. If you do a little Google research you can get just about anyone’s email address these days, but that’s more time consuming than having direct email capability through LinkedIn. InMail offers convenience and access to direct conversation with people you are not connected with. Beware though how you approach InMail as you don’t want to irritate the email recipient. It’s just like being at a networking event where that guy or girl introduces themselves, shoves a business card in your face and starts giving you the sales pitch. Use InMail appropriately. Networking is not about the hard sell, it’s about meeting people, understanding their business, and sharing yours so that you can refer them business and vice versa. When a friend of theirs is in need of your product or services or perhaps they are in the buying market, they will approach you as a resource, whether you can personally help them or refer them in the right direction. I’d recommend asking people in your network for an introduction to someone that they’re connect with (free service) vs. a cold InMail email.

The value of LinkedIn is how much you work the information available, just like a CRM database. Customer relationship management systems don’t work themselves. Whether or not to pay for an upgrade depends on what information you need access to and your expectation of using this information. If you are going to upgrade and spend the money, just make sure you’re diligent with utilizing this tool and understanding all of the features available.