Whether using LinkedIn, Ushi or Tianji, MBA students can’t ignore the benefits of business networking sites

Eddie Yan created his LinkedIn profile eight months ago, shortly after he began an MBA program at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). Like many white-collar professionals in China, he wasn’t familiar with the social networking website while working as a tax and business advisor for Deloitte in Shanghai. But he has already racked up quite a few contacts – 370 at last count. “Is that a lot?” he smiles. “I’m quite selective, I think.”

LinkedIn is by far the world’s largest professional networking website, with over 100 million members. The website, which is currently considering formal expansion into China, already has more than a million users in the mainland. That may be helped by the fact that – unlike other US social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter – LinkedIn has not been blocked by the Chinese government, except briefly in February.

But that hasn’t stopped home-grown competitor sites like Tianji and Ushi from trying to grab a piece of the market. Viadeo Group, owner of Tianji.com, said in June it is considering selling shares to the public to help compete against LinkedIn in China.

Ushi, launched officially in October 2010, currently has about 300,000 members, including an original core of 100 elite “charter members” – partners at venture capital firms and CEOs of advertising agencies, luxury brands and high-tech companies, among others. According to the Chinese networking site, its exclusive list “provided the foundation for Ushi’s business atmosphere,” which it hopes will become the nation’s top online platform for business networking.

To differentiate itself from competitors like LinkedIn, Ushi offers features like “job channel,” a subscriber-based listing of jobs with monthly salaries over RMB10,000 (US$1,544), and “event platform,” a mobile application that uses GPS features to help professionals connect with each other at meetings. The site also emphasizes the benefits of connecting with its user base of top executives, which may appeal to MBA students seeking to interact with potential employers.

Few MBA students can afford to ignore the benefits of networking; but many of them are unaware of Ushi or its China-based competitors, instead preferring to use LinkedIn. “You will not only find your friends and your colleagues on LinkedIn, you will let yourself be known to job hunters, future employers and HR [recruiters],” said Hong Wei, a former journalist and MBA candidate at Fudan University. “I know there are several copycats of LinkedIn in China, but I think none of them are superior, because they have not reached the extent of [LinkedIn].”

Getting started

Lois Freeke, a recruiter and career strategist based in Shanghai, said that the earlier aspiring professionals begin cultivating a personal brand online, the better. She points out that globally, about 90% of recruiters search for information about candidates online. “If you have a presence on LinkedIn, it will always come up on the first page of your Google results,” she noted. “[On LinkedIn], you control the information and where they go next.”

Business schools are also beginning to teach online personal branding skills, though often informally throughout the curriculum, rather than in a dedicated course. Hong said that in her class on management information systems at Fudan, professors discuss a number of internet-related topics – including online branding. Yan of CEIBS adds that his school has a career development course devoted to job seeking strategies: “They will teach you how to position yourself in your market. One specific topic of a three-hour lecture is personal identity.”

While students discover LinkedIn and similar websites independent of any curriculum, many are not fully versed on how to use them effectively. “When people are using LinkedIn smartly, they’re strategically building a network, earlier than they might need it,” said Freeke.

Social business networks are best used as a platform where people can market themselves with a unique value proposition that differentiates them from others. One way to achieve this on LinkedIn is to join highly specialized groups and stay active in them, which helps users make a clear statement that they are an authority for a given topic.

Students and other job seekers should make sure that everything they put online reinforces their personal
brand. “It doesn’t just have to be work related, but it should all be consistent and strive to reinforce the image that you want to portray,” Freeke said.

Job search

But in China, where professional opportunities often hinge on guanxi, can online networks foster the same kind of trust that leads to real-world opportunities? “Actually, I think that LinkedIn only solves one problem,” said Hong Wei, “and that is information asymmetry. Someone needs you, and you need someone, but you don’t know each other.”

Otherwise, Hong believes it’s unlikely that someone would reach out to a LinkedIn contact and offer a position that other candidates are qualified for. An employer’s personal contact, even a fairly distant one, would inevitably be preferred.

Yan of CEIBS expects that these attitudes will slowly begin to shift, but that the time-honored tradition of face-to-face meetings and exchanging name cards is still the best way to make contacts. “Even though I have more than 300 contacts on LinkedIn, I cannot say that each relationship is really valued or helpful,” he said.

For now, LinkedIn, Ushi and other counterparts may be less beneficial for gaining an edge on an established job opening, compared with planting an idea of a job position in an employer’s mind. “In China, people are using LinkedIn to create unpublished jobs and carve out their own opportunities,” said Freeke. It’s difficult to predict the outcomes. But if you build a niche, recruiters just might find you.

This article was published in China Economic Review in July 2011.