While Facebook and Google+ may grab most of the headlines these days, social networking pioneer LinkedIn has been quietly establishing itself as the place for professionals to meet, converse and exchange information.
That's largely driven by LinkedIn groups, communities formed around shared interests, goals or work experiences. Participating in a LinkedIn group can help you keep up to date with industry trends, make valuable contacts and establish yourself as a thought leader in your field.
But where to begin? There are more than 16,000 IT-related groups on LinkedIn -- that's a lot to wade through when trying to find those that are worth your while. And since the IT field itself is highly fragmented, it can be difficult to select the best among them, as I discovered when I asked several IT pros to name their favorite LinkedIn groups.
Not only are there groups that specialize in particular areas of IT, from hardware and networking to applications and security, but different groups have different styles that may or may not appeal to you personally. Some groups are strictly business, others more freewheeling where participants share personal information and off-topic discussions emerge. Some host a steady stream of postings with rich commentary, while others have fewer discussions.
Not all groups will be for all people, but that's the beauty of it all -- with such a wide range of groups to choose from, you're bound to find something to meet your needs.
With all that in mind, I've included seven examples of high-caliber LinkedIn groups at the end of this story. Aimed at a wide range of IT professionals and covering topics as diverse as cloud security and the convergence of medicine and wireless technology, all of these groups are professionally oriented, well-moderated and free from the spam that can sometimes turn users away.
But first, let's look at the best ways to pinpoint the right LinkedIn groups for you.
Finding participation-worthy groups
When choosing LinkedIn groups to participate in, LinkedIn experts advise, it pays to have a solid strategy, spend some time "lurking" in these groups to see what they're all about, and follow some fairly straightforward best-practice guidelines.
First, identify what you hope to gain from participation in a group. For instance: "I'd like to find a good resource for information about troubleshooting Windows-related issues," or "I'd like to learn more about HTML5 applications," or "I'd like to develop job leads for security administrator positions." Your goals will help you both narrow down the groups you choose to participate in and provide direction in terms of the posts you will ultimately make while participating in these groups.
"You should know what your expertise is and you should know the people you want to speak to," says Wayne Breitbarth, author of The Power Formula for LinkedIn Success (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2011). "If you have a process to share things in your groups and status updates that are consistent with your brand and your niche, people will see you as an expert over time."
Once you have an idea of your goals, there are three main ways to find a group, says Jan Vermeiren, founder of training consultancy Networking Coach and author of How to REALLY use LinkedIn (BookSurge Publishing, 2009).
The Groups directory
At the top of the LinkedIn home page, click the Groups menu, then enter a search term representing your desired content. You'll get a list of groups, ordered from most to least members.
"Unfortunately," explains Vermeiren, "there is no advanced search for groups yet," which can make doing this a bit challenging. My search for "IT security," for instance, brought up more than 7,000 results -- so it helps to narrow your search term as much as possible. The list you'll get will provide you with some general information about each group and its members to give you a sense of the value it might hold based on your goals.