social media case studies“If you can’t make money on LinkedIn, you’re deaf, dumb and blind,” says James Filbird of JMF International Trade Group.

It’s 6 pm on the west coast of the United States, but it’s already 9 am tomorrow at James Filbird’s apartment in Shenzhen, China.

Filbird is the proprietor of JMF International Trade Group Ltd., a company he built to $5 million in revenue largely through his efforts on LinkedIn, the only major social media platform that is not blocked by the Chinese government.

His beginnings in China, however, were less than auspicious.

Organization: JMF International Trade Group Ltd.

Social Media Handles & Stats:


linkedin success story

Filbird was highlighted as one of 100 success stories when LinkedIn hit 100 million members.

An American in China

When Filbird moved to China in early 2006, he spent nine months working on a manufacturing venture that eventually fell through. He had planned to stay at least a year, so when the deal went sour, he did some soul-searching.

“I had very little money in my pocket. Usually it’s the Chinese coming to America with little money for their dream, but I did it the other way around.”

He decided to stay in China as a business consultant and contract manufacturer, the “feet on the ground” for inventors looking to source products there, and gravitated to LinkedIn as a way to connect with potential business.

Early Adopter

A LinkedIn early adopter, Filbird had joined the site in 2004 as one of the first one million members. At that point he hadn’t used it much, seeing it as a resource for job-seekers. But in late 2006 when he began building his business in earnest, it seemed the only choice for serious professional prospecting.

“Neither Twitter nor Facebook were of any interest to me. And there were no professionals to speak of that I saw on MySpace.”

LinkedIn has also remained the only platform accessible without a VPN inside China. “[LinkedIn has] never been blocked by the Chinese government except for one day,” Filbird said. “Whereas Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have been blocked for the last four years.”

group discussion

Engaging in group discussions is the main way Filbird finds business on LinkedIn.

He built out his profile to 100%, joined the maximum allowable 50 groups and spent up to two hours daily on the site engaging in group discussions and looking for people to connect with.

Since then, he has used his strategy on the site to grow JMF International to between $3.5 million and $5 million in annual revenue. “There are a lot of really good people on LinkedIn,” Filbird said. “They’re professional, courteous, friendly, fun, a wealth of information and they’re super-smart. That’s why I’ve been able to get most of my business from LinkedIn.”

Building an International Business Using LinkedIn

Here are Filbird’s seven steps to cultivating successful business relationships using LinkedIn, whether you live in China, Chicago or Chesterfield.

#1: Brush Up Your Profile

Before engaging with others, spend some time using best practices to fill out your LinkedIn profile.

james profile

Completing your profile to 100% and keeping it up to date are LinkedIn best practices.

#2: Join 50 Groups

“If you’re not using groups, you’re not using the biggest resource on LinkedIn,” said Filbird. “That’s where the gold is—people looking for help.”

Filbird finds groups to join by searching for keywords in the Groups Search function, seeing what groups his connections are in and receiving group recommendations from his connections.

Although the explosion in the number of LinkedIn groups means there is also a lot of spam and self-promotion, he insists that separating the wheat from the chaff is time well spent. “It takes time and a good eye.”

To gauge the health of a group before joining, look at the Activity tab in Group Statistics, which is available on the Group Profile page even for private groups. Look at the ratio of comments to discussions. More comments than discussions indicates highly engaged members, whereas many discussions and few comments indicate a group with little real activity and lots of self-promotion.

group activity

Profile of healthy LinkedIn group activity.

#3: Scour the Group Digests

“From every single group, I received [daily] notifications. That’s the gold.” Filbird started every day by spending approximately two hours searching for discussions that looked interesting. “When I’d get up in the morning, I’d check my email and go through 50 different news feeds.” Filbird considered this part of his daily work of prospecting for business.

digest settings

Set LinkedIn Group Digest frequency at Settings (Groups, Companies & Applications, Set the frequency of group digest emails).

As his business gained traction, Filbird cut down somewhat on this time investment, but still reads daily digests for 25 of the 50 groups he belongs to.

#4: Engage in Discussions

It’s not enough to simply join groups and look through the digests. When you find a discussion that looks interesting, chime in and become part of the conversation.

“Make [your comment] attractive to people and something that offers them a lot of value. If somebody likes what you say, they’ll go to your profile and they’ll connect with you.”

By initiating discussions that generate comments, you can also be recognized as a top influencer in the group’s sidebar.

top influencer

A Top Influencer sidebar from one of Filbird's groups.

#5: Connect

Since 2006, Filbird has grown his connections to approximately 1,600, most of whom he has met through groups or found through mutual connections. “They’re all hand-picked,” he said. “I’m not a LION (LinkedIn Open Networker).”

He also lauds LinkedIn’s improvements in the People You May Know feature, allowing members to find more relevant connections.

“I look for [people] whom I might potentially want to work with, engage them there on LinkedIn and if they show an interest, I move them over to Skype.”

#6: Move the Conversation Offline

Once Filbird has engaged in discussion with someone from his groups and connected with them, he evaluates whether he would like to take the conversation offline.

“I say, ‘I would like to talk to you about how I’m able to help you—do you use Skype?’ [They reply,] ‘Sure, here’s my Skype ID.’ Boom, we’re talking in the next couple of days. I’ve developed business partnerships, client relationships and friendships that way, through Skype.”

Filbird estimates that for every 10 people he engages on LinkedIn, one of them will develop into some kind of relationship. For people he connects with on Skype, one in three results in some kind of business.

james on skype

James Filbird in a familiar spot—conversing on Skype.

#7: Reevaluate

Filbird’s group memberships are constantly evolving as he reevaluates whether they still have value to him. Although he is always a member of 50 groups, only three or four are among the original 50 he joined five years ago.

New groups are forming all the time and the relevance of certain groups also shifts over time. “As my focus in business has changed, so my focus in groups has changed.”

Craft Your Own LinkedIn Strategy

What if you don’t have one to two hours a day to read daily digests? How can you apply these techniques to leverage LinkedIn for your business? Try this strategy or modify it to fit your situation:

  • Touch up your profile.
  • Join 50 groups.
  • Get weekly digests for 5-10 groups.
  • Spend one hour weekly participating in discussions of interest.
  • Send connection invitations to people you meet in discussions.
  • Ask connections if they would like to connect by phone or Skype.
  • Every three months, reevaluate group memberships and weekly digests.

Filbird can’t say enough good things about LinkedIn as a resource for building a business. “It’s a phenomenal tool. I lost all my money and I had to rebuild, and I’ve done it with LinkedIn.”

What do you think? How have you used LinkedIn to grow your business? Has it helped you create business relationships overseas? Leave your questions and comments in the box below.

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  • Wow what an interesting story! Very inspirational and gives us all a little bit more hope and drive to do the same. I have also found LinkedIn to be helpful for our business. We provide auto dealer website solutions, so participating in automotive groups and discussions have been informative. I also like to use LinkedIn Answers to get feedback on a few topics or ideas I brainstorm. 

  • Now that’s what I call some nitty gritty advice. I love posts like this with specifics (like how to take the pulse of a group before joining it). Thank you!

  • Had this discussion the other day.. everyone’s MMV which is why we create our own networking formulas. But in order for any of it to work – LinkedIn or any other social tool – that means doing, means participating in groups, commenting on posts, etc. – can’t automate or program this, you’ve got to put in the effort and then look back, see what’s working and what isn’t. FWIW.

  • I think this article is a great read for entrepreneurs. Thanks for the write-up.

  • davidwesson

    Great story .a lot of people still see linked in as a purely recruitment based but it is so much more than that . The only thing I think that prevents more people using it is the high ceiling they place on media spends. Here in Australia it is $10k .If they were to half that iam sure they would have a lot more companies using it to target customers

  • I actively use LinkedIn every day and I have generated probably 95% of my business from there. It’s phenomenal. My recommendation is to give as much as, if not more, than you take – that’s the only way any community can build.

  • Very useful! Thanks so much. I have’t been active enough in groups and it’s sort of embarrassing being a teach and coach and writer! There’s an old Chinese saying that “man will stand for long time with mouth open until roast duck fly in.” Thanks Louise and James for waking me up to the real value of Linkedin! (and the value I might be to people when I answer technical questions and help folks in the posts). 

  • Mick Long

    Like many professional organizations, those that are active within the LinkedIn community tend to reap the harvest.

  • Matt Mullin

    I’ve been personally using this method to promote for my company, but strictly using my own personal LinkedIn profile and not the company for whom I work.  Using your own profile to generate business, especially in the B2B realm gives people the feeling of trust and that you’re not trying to push your products on them.  Promoting my company and their expertise in the groups section of LinkedIn has given people a sense of comfort, that they are dealing with someone who is adding and providing value to their discussion.  Just promoting our webinar series in an innocuous manner has driven attendance for us exponentially.  

  • Perfectly timed as I’ve been working on reaching out to local business owners to help them with customer followup, and mobile strategy. This morning it occurred to me that the South Florida Interactive Marketing Association on LinkedIn has 2,835 members. That is my target market. And discussions most of the time far outweigh comments.

    Duh. Thanks for the article!

  • Alan Stransman

    I am a huge fan of LinkedIn as I am a writer, writing coach and publisher and I help business professionals write and publish books that confer authority, credibility and expert status. I am a member of a number of speaking and coaching groups and I contact fellow group members and introduce myself and tell them what I do. My experience with LinkedIn has been extremely positive as I have found that 20-30% of the people I contact will allow me to send them my free book, which is a very high percentage. 

    In short: write an expert book and give it away for free to members of groups that can benefit from the expertise you expressed in your book.

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  • Louise, congratulations on an excellent piece! When I looked for case studies for my LinkedIn for Business book and James Filbird reached out to me, his story was so compelling that not only did he make it into the book, he also appears every time I speak on social media – and now he is on Social Media Examiner. A powerful example of the power of LinkedIn – and social media!

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  • Diane Bianchi

    Great article.  I pretty much do numbers 1 through 5, but 6 and 7 were especially informative for me.  Thanks!

  • Paul Shafer

    Very positive article with good specific examples and a road map for getting started in a smaller fashion. Brilliant !  Now is the time to set my calendar up to participate in the groups I am involved and test, evaluate, and move on.  Communication, education, and building my customer base will be the goals !  Thanks James and all the others that have commented and added feedback.. 

  • Dlaurence

    The comment/discussion ratio looks interesting. Just compared weekly comments on two sites I’m a member of – one had 122, the other 1 – time to weed out the duds ? 

  • Inspiring case study. It is good to hear that investing the time to monitor and engage in Group discussions produces results over time. I appreciate the reminder about regularly evaluating which Groups are the most productive.

  • Frances

    I agree with all of the points outlined here. However, busy solo professionals do not have the time to devote two hours a day to groups. Whenever I suggest to clients that they join a couple of groups and actively participate, they roll their eyes.

  • Phyllis

    Frances, I agree. While I do see the value in joining groups, most established business professionals really do not have the time to spend a lot of time participating in group discussions.  The value of these groups depends a lot on the nature of the business you are in.

  • I have to respectfully disagree with Frances (actually her clients). I’m a busy solo professional and I make time for group activities. Anyone who has time to market their business has time for group engagement on LinkedIn because that’s what it is. It’s marketing. It’s networking. It’s business development. I think people who haven’t spend much time there or haven’t seen much benefit as of yet need to re-frame it in their mind from something slightly on the frivolous side to something integral to the growth of your business. Slow-moving businesses that have been saying “We don’t have time for social media” for the last few years are now realizing they must make time for social media or they will get left behind.

  • AquilesCastro

    Liked it!.. great info and allready put it to practice.

  • It’s nice to know that someone is truly benefiting from using LinkedIn groups. It’s so hard to navigate through so much self-promotion these days that I believe most of us don’t spend as much time on the site as we should. Thanks for sharing! This post makes me want to rethink my LinkedIn strategy.

  • Mick Long

    Some of you may recognize my name from the article we’re discussing. Over the years James and I have become very proficient at managing our time invested in various group LI discussions, both “public” and off line via private messaging.

    To be successful in any business, one has to be proficient in keeping their activity thematic to the task at hand, whether you are prospecting for new business opportunities, rationalizing existing ones, or trying to get a pulse on future trends that may impact your business down the road.

    Some LI groups are structured to disseminate awareness while others are focused on specific industries or professions. The ceiling of 50 groups has been an increasing issue with many LI members. To think there almost that many groups associated with new product development, invention & innovation makes you wonder about the cause of proliferation. When you look at joining a group consider its value and member demographic.  Look at some of the comments and determine if this fits the birds of a feather theory. In summary, its a tool, use it effectively and you will reap the reward. 

  • Louise Julig

    Thanks, Kirsten! I’m glad you found it useful. 

  • Louise Julig

    I love that imagery! I’m glad you found the article useful. Just dive right in and start helping others and I’m sure your efforts will pay off in ways you couldn’t have anticipated.

  • Louise Julig

    Thanks so much for introducing me to James for this piece, Neal. You and he share the same ethic on LinkedIn — I call it being a Good Web Citizen 🙂 And as you say, it is a powerful example of what can happen when you use social media the right way.

  • Mick Long

    Absolutely Neal. Knowing someone of James’ caliper is one thing, having them share their case study – – priceless! 

  • Louise Julig

    I agree, Frances, that a lot of solo professionals do not have that kind of time, which is why I outlined a modified version of Filbird’s strategy. I hope that will make it seem more doable for people. I know I have gotten valuable contacts and also direct business from my own LinkedIn activity, so I know it is definitely worth the investment. 

  • Louise Julig

    Thanks for contributing, Mick! I agree with your comment that you have to keep your activity relevant to your goals. That can be difficult in the amorphous land of social media, but if you keep your ultimate goal in mind, it definitely does pay off. 

  • Louise Julig

    Yes, that’s something that I learned while writing this piece. I realized that I hadn’t reevaluated my own groups lately and will be doing more of that now.

  • Louise Julig

    Thanks for your comment, Michael. I found it interesting that Filbird considered the two hours he spent on LinkedIn as part of his workday. When you keep a goal in mind (See  Mick Long’s comment after) it makes sense to just consider this time as part of your marketing activities. 

  • Louise Julig

    Glad you learned something from the piece, Diane. Thanks for the comment!

  • Cindy Allen-Stuckey

    James, thanks for all the “how-to’s” in this article.  I just really started using the capabilities in LinkedIn a few months ago & am already seeing the networking paying off.  I am doing most of the steps you have listed, but I learned a few more tips from your article.

  • Great step by step demonstration to show how commitment get rewards, I believe that LinkedIn is particularly helpful for B2B business where professional engagement is more important than eyeball.

  • Megan

    Tip number 6 seems to be, in my opinion, the most important and most difficult step. Transitioning between online and “in person” (or at least face to face) can turn a connection into a valuable prospect.

  • James Filbird

    Hi Frances. It’s not necessary to spend two hours a day scouring group messages to find the gold. Make an effort to spend at least 30 minutes reading the messages from the groups you find most value from. Do it for 30 days and you’ll see some positives results from it. Good luck!

  • James Filbird

    Great point you make Howard. In life, we have to MAKE time for everything we do, otherwise the time will never materialize. We must make time for what is important to us. This requires some time management modifications and priority tasking.  

  • James Filbird

    Great point Mick. It’s so important to stay focused on your goals so that you can find value in what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. Meeting you through LinkedIn has definitely proven to be a goldmine for me as we have developed a very strong friendship and powerful business partnership. 

  • James Filbird

    Hi Cindy. It’s encouraging to see that you are making good use of LI and have found the procedures I use of value to you. Keep up the regiment and stay focused on your goal(s) and you’ll find a comfortable place for you to become active within LinkedIn’s social media platform. 

  • I admin a group I started on LinkedIn.  It’s called Color & Paint Professionals.  Been participating on other people’s forums since 2004 and decided I wanted to admin one of my own.  However, didn’t want to try to build a forum on my own website and I saw LinkedIn as the perfect answer.  It takes time for any forum to gain quality members who participate, contribute relevant content – takes time to build a community.  

    LinkedIn groups provides a way to categorize posts within your forum.  There’s a place for jobs and promotions.  Everyone is there to self-promote in one way or another.  Can be challenging as an admin to balance everything but I try to keep the main board clean and free from obvious spammers and I make good use of the Jobs and Promotions categories.

    The members who contribute to the forum earn the right to talk about their business, bend the community’s ear on the main board.

    Checking into groups, belonging to many groups is one thing.  Becoming a member of the community is another.  It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to contribute meaningfully.  Agree that there are many benefits and opportunities for ROI.

  • Louise, congratulations on an excellent piece. It may even inspire me to start using LinkedIn to its potential. Thanks!

  • Hi Louise, thanks for excellent post and linkdIn certainly gives you targeted traffic. thanks for sharing  

  • wow great us an inspiration that we can do something better than this 

  • Diana Swan

    Thank you so much very helpful, am starting to coach company members about growing our business via Linked in and this information is most helpful.

  • Really interesting article..I have to admit that I’m on Linkedin but don’t use it to its full advantage..Think I’ll spend some time poking around it and make more use of the site.

  • Damian Corbet

    So LinkedIn isn’t boring after all! 🙂

  • Mick Long

    When you are administering your own group and looking to expand membership, its a good idea to make prospecting for new members a daily routine. Don’t be afraid to PM some of your more active group members for referrals (James and I often refer each other to new and different groups). We also find ourselves rotating some due to the limit of 50.   

  • Wow, what a great article! I was duly impressed with all the different tips. I am looking forward to doing more with LinkedIn. Thanks again. 

  • The write up captivated me indeed! I have also been a LinkedIn user for sometime now.  Though in the past year I have utilized it for its true nature more or less, the tips and strategies shared in this article reaffirm my notions but more importantly gave me good insight as how to methodically capitalize on it! Bravo!

  • Diane

    Hi Louise and James,  thanks for writing this really informative and useful information about LinkedIn and its use for business.  I have been working to put social media together in a useful way for our busines, and as we are both B2B and B2C, I need to balance out my social media involvement. I am just getting started with social media, so this information on joining groups and working within those groups is really useful for me.  Thank you so much. 

  • Really interesting article Louise and very timely in that I was talking to a client today about making more of LinkedIn and in particular group participation. Then I realised I wasn’t walking the walk myself as it were.. as a solo / consultant practitioner I put LI Group activity at the bottom of my to-do list everytime. Good intentions but never followed through. I’m going to remedy that and get more involved and follow the strategy above to kickstart myself! Cheers

  • Dawn Mentzer

    Fantastic!! I’ll be talking with a sales team at a local business about this very thing. This article will be a great resource for them. Thank you!

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  • Claire Dalisay

    This is a great article, as a newbie this article helps a lot.

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  • VaishSaulo

    This article inspired me to get back to LinkedIn!

  • VaishSaulo

    This article inspired me to get back to LinkedIn.

  • Louise Julig

    Thanks for the feedback, Mark, and I’m glad the article was useful to you. 

  • Inspirational Story! I almost did all the points except for joining 50 groups. I’m in about 10 and need to re-engage in discussions. My business is global in 53 countries so looking for international partners is a definite goal. Thanks for the great post!

  • Like many others, I’m reevaluating the role LinkedIn plays in my overall business strategy. I see more possibilities now than I did before. Thanks for the article.

  • Judy Feldhausen

    If you want to use linked in for business, here is a great article.

  • Sandra Soloducha

    This is really a good article. I’m looking to start my own business as well by providing services to retailers to improve their customer service and marketing strategy. This I’m sure will be of great help!

  • Sandra Soloducha

    Can I ask what type of industry is your business?

  • Lesley

    A great “how to” article, which I’ve shared! Thanks for giving us the nuts & bolts of what is working for someone truly walking the walk!

  • I 100% agree, if someone use Linkedin but can’t make money, that would be the most stupid thing in the world.

  • James Filbird

    International trade; business consulting and contract manufacturing. 

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  • Lisa May

    I use Linkedin daily, the information, resources, and networks are priceless !!!! I have met some fantastic people and learn more about my business from others every day. This article opened my eyes to Linkedin’s potential. Thanks Louise !!!!

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  • This is a great post, it is very simple to understand 🙂

  • Really interesting piece, Louise/James. It still amazes me that there are some businesses people who have yet to create a profile on LinkedIn, never mind actually use some of its features and functions. LinkedIn is one of the first social media networks I recommend to my clients (more often than not, before the monolith that is Facebook). I will say though that whilst I agree that it is essential to join groups on LinkedIn, in my experience of dealing with small to medium sized companies, asking them to join 50 groups, scour the digests, create posts and comment on others – not to mention working on their other social media profiles – is probably too much to take on for many of my clients and they would probably run mile in the opposite direction if I told them to do so! Even though I’d hope to teach them the benefits they can gain from doing what you suggest, most of them just can’t shoehorn this level of commitment in to what is already a packed daily schedule. Whilst this might initially benefit social media marketing firms such as mine, we want our clients to get to the stage where they take on the majority of this kind of activity themselves. A lot of what I do is strategy, set up and supervising to help overcome the initial fear factor of social media maketing. For many of my clients I would want to break them in gently, perhaps join 10 groups at first, become familiar with the process, gain confidence, engage and interact with group members and experience the advantages of doing so first. Get them involved with more selective group with a higher quality experience after which point we can reassess and then perhaps look to grow the number of groups and interactions they are involved with. I am of course generalising because if I had a ‘savvy’ client with the time and the will to fully embrace your suggestions then I most certainly would recommend that they do so.

    Thanks once again. I will definitely pass on your advice.



  • James Filbird

    Interesting comment you make Frank. My suggestion to your clients who don’t have enough time to put in the time that I did (and sometimes still do) is to hire someone who understands social media, has a good eye, is a quick learner, likes to write and is good at it, and is engaging. This won’t cost much to do and can even be done remotely by someone you trust. In order to achieve the results I have made, you have to put in the time. There are no shortcuts but the reward can be well worth the time. It’s something to consider.

  • Sanjay

    Sounds interesting….

  • Very interesting but i find it hard to use a personal account to bring awareness about your business. I am employed by a company to build its presence on Social Media. Do i really want to build it through my personal profile.
    LinkekIn does not give the option yet to post in group through a company profile.
    What happen when i leave the company? all this presence and relevance building is lost…

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  • Thanks James, and Louise, for sharing. Choosing one Social Network to major on is a valuable lesson. Moving contact to a private 1:1 via Skype/Phone is another. Do you think the new Social CRM apps (like Nimble) will start to make it easier to manage multiple networks, conversations, contacts and opportunities?

  • I just discovered this article today. I’m sure glad I did because I’ve not been paying enough attention to the Groups feature though I often tell people that’s where the action is! James’ idea of being consistent makes a lot of sense. How can you not start standing out as a powerful resource if you keep giving weekly to select groups? 

  • Maggie Cooke

    Thank you Louise/James for sharing your knowledge.
    Discipline trumps talent every time – find the process – work the process …rinse and repeat.!

  • This is excellent!  Some wonderful tips here and not one of them involve spamming!  LOL!  I tremble to think of keeping up with 50 active groups every day but he has a really good point.  Loved this.

  • James Filbird

    You don’t have to keep active with 50 groups to be successful. You can start with 10 that meet your target audience/objectives and gradually increase to a number you’re comfortable with. I recommend developing a method of tracking the active group members and knowing which posts are worthy of your time to make contact. You’ll find that it is worth the effort if you keep at it.

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  • Mick Long

    A Nimble-like SM business model has been available in the music industry for quite some time and has proven very effective for artists to disseminate information to their fan base.  

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  • This is really a excellent post.You have post such nice post. This article inspired me a lot.

  • This is the best Linkedin advice so far. I am going to try this. Thanks for this brilliant networking advice. 

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  • Donna

    This is my first time using this social network and I was feeling very lost not knowing which path to take first. I now have a big boost and many new paths to try. Thank you

  • Louise Julig

    I’m really glad the article was helpful to you! Even though the look of LinkedIn has changed somewhat since last year, the advice is still relevant.

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