linkedinThe first thing you must know about LinkedIn is that it streamlines the networking process (I know, groundbreaking stuff, right?). This means that you can pretty much assume that anyone who currently has a profile on LinkedIn is in some way interested in making business contacts (like you!). The trick, however, is figuring out how best to reach out to that high-level executive at [insert dream company here] who is currently only a 3rd degree connection, but whom you wish to be 1st. If you are like me, then when it comes to figuring out effective ways to use LinkedIn, you are about as lost as my grandmother’s reading glasses (which, incidentally, are currently resting upon her lovely, forgetful head). Luckily for you, I was able to do some digging and put together 5 key practices that I believe could potentially help you get the most out of your LinkedIn experience.

1. Find Out Who Your Audience Is. In her article “A Guide to Generating Leads on LinkedIn,” Ann Handley states the following:

Market-research firm Lab42 finds that top-level executives and entry-level workers use LinkedIn differently: Younger members use the site mostly to post résumés and network for jobs, while more experienced professionals use it to demonstrate thought leadership and expertise, promote their businesses, conduct market research and–perhaps most important–win new business.

The trick is to find your niche, and your target market of LinkedIn users. Ask yourself why you created your profile. Was it to find new employment? Build your brand? Stay connected with old colleagues? In answering this question, you should be able to tailor your LinkedIn use appropriately to meet that goal. For example, if your goal is to find employment, then posting a resume, following the group of the company (or industry) you are interested in, and/or finding a LinkedIn lead (or introduction) to that company are all good things to focus on. But remember, your goal should be to demonstrate that you would make a valuable asset to a company, or resource to a potential connection. In general, no one likes to be used, so your job is to show people how and/or why they can benefit from taking an interest in you.

2. Connect. Connect. Connect! Connect with anyone you’ve ever worked with, gone to school with, met for lunch, had a good conversation with, carpooled with, or held the door open for (okay, maybe not, but you get the point). The more expansive your network, the more likely it is that LinkedIn will be an engaging and useful platform for you. Maybe you won’t know everyone on a personal level, but it is a lot easier to “break the ice” with a potential connection when you already have a pre-established relationship/can find out more about him/her from his/her LinkedIn profile. And don’t be afraid to do as Liz Ryan suggests in her article “Ten Ways to Use LinkedIn to Build Your Business” and “connect beyond the obvious”:

Let’s say that you would dearly like to work with General Motors, but you can’t find anyone at GM who seems especially suitable for contact as you search the LinkedIn database. No problem. Find a current GM vendor or customer in the functional area you’re interested in, and reach out to him or her. Is there something of value that you could offer in exchange for the introduction you want? In an ideal world, your sterling qualities and dazzling personality should convince this new acquaintance that introducing her client to you is something of value all by itself. But don’t bank on that. Offer to extend an invitation of your own, or design his or her new database, or something.

Who knows? If you engage with your contacts frequently (either directly through InMail, or indirectly through daily updates), then they may already have a favorable impression of you. Substantive engagement with your contacts is key to LinkedIn success.

3. You Get What You Give. Perhaps the most important thing to note about LinkedIn is that, while it may be a wide-spread, highly-valuable social networking tool, it’s still no Facebook or Twitter. Forget what statistics and revenue might say, it’s just obvious that posting things on Facebook or Twitter will generally garner far more attention than posting things on LinkedIn. While LinkedIn may not be the fiesta that Facebook or Twitter is, it does have its perks. How should you engage with those people? This suggestion coincides with the two above suggestions in that it is important to know who your audience is and what your goal is for using LinkedIn. Jorgen Sundberg suggests the following:

Most active LinkedIn users I know have a LinkedIn browser window open all day but they mainly use LinkedIn as a database. I would make a habit of sharing an interesting piece of content every day, checking out the events section for relevant networking dos, engaging with other users in Groups and generally keeping an eye on the homefeed to keep my finger on the pulse. This only takes 15 minutes per day but it’s easy to get sidetracked and lose the bigger picture.

The more substantive your posts are, the more likely it is that you will leave a lasting impression on people who (unlike Facebook) only check LinkedIn semi-regularly. Remember, you are not trying to sell anything; you are trying to engage your audience. Sales pitches tend to come off as spam, and no one likes a spammer. No one.

4. Reach Out With a Purpose. While LinkedIn is a social network like Facebook or Twitter, its users are much different and therefore must be appealed to differently. When contacting a potential connection on LinkedIn, always be purposive, have a goal in mind, and ask yourself the following questions: Who is this person? How do I know him/her? If I do not know him/her, who do I know that possibly knows him/her? Why do I want to know them? What do I have to offer to said person if in fact he/she is able to help me? LinkedIn can also be helpful for face-to-face meetings in the sense that prior to meeting with someone you can view their profile to learn about him/her and his/her background. This way, you avoid the awkward small talk that usually accompanies business conversations before either of you stumble upon some common ground.

5. Specific Tips. T. Nakagawa and P. Roosen write in their article “Making Your LinkedIn Business Network Pay Dividends,” the following tips:

  • You should customize your public profile URL to be your actual name;
  • Use LinkedIn’s new Answers feature to help others and gain exposure;
  • Include your LinkedIn profile link on your blog, faxes, letterhead, business cards;
  • Utilize all the links you are allowed to incorporate on your profile.

Given the proper time and care, LinkedIn can be a valuable resource for your SEO campaign. Make sure to always keep your profile, resume, and contacts up-to-date with the latest information on you and your business. Wherever possible, send out personalized contact messages when connecting with new people. Endorse and be endorsed. As many bloggers have noted, LinkedIn is simply a tool and it is ultimately up to you to figure out how best to use it.

For more information/ideas on how to best use LinkedIn please check out 100+ ways to Use LinkedIn and/or 12 LinkedIn Branding Tips For Small Business.

[cc photo cred to TheSeafarer via flickr]