LinkedInWell we all know just how important networking is for a small business, but if you can’t face getting up at the crack of dawn for those breakfast meetings or can’t take time out to go to local networking events, then LinkedIn is probably one of the best alternatives available. And you can take advantage of all it offers from the comforts of your desk/kitchen table/sofa/sun lounger in your garden!

Where Facebook is the undoubted online social network of choice, LinkedIn has established itself as the professional equivalent and currently has over 100 million users worldwide. It gives you the opportunity to connect with people you know from previous jobs, people you’ve just met and even people you’d like to meet or contact. Even better, it’s completely free to join (although you can choose to upgrade and pay a monthly fee which gives you even greater access to contacts, dependent on the level at which you choose to subscribe).

So how can you make sure that LinkedIn will benefit your small business?

It’s all very well setting up a profile page, but like any networking site, you have to invest time in order to make it work for your business. So, first things first, set up your profile page. That means giving a potted history of your career, summarising your business and experience and, yes, adding a photograph of yourself. People much prefer to be able to put a face to a name, particularly in the virtual world, but please, please, please make sure it’s suitable – don’t put up a picture of yourself on a Spanish beach because you think you look good with a tan! Remember this is all about presenting yourself to the business world.

Even adding your education background can reap rewards in terms of making contacts (remember when Friends Reunited was the site to find people you knew from your past?) – it can throw up lots of names and who knows how influential the argumentative Leftie in your seminar group may have become in your industry!

As you fill in your profile, LinkedIn will indicate the percentage to which it is complete. LinkedIn will also offer tips on how to improve this e.g. by getting a recommendation. You should, of course, aim for 100% but failing that try to get it at least 90% complete. This is your ‘shop window’ of sorts so the more information you ‘display’ the more visible you will become.

Add external links

If you have your own website, blog or Twitter account you can add links to them. You can add up to three URLs so if you have more, choose the ones which you feel are most valuable to your business. When you create any link make sure you create keyword-rich anchor text so that you can include keywords relevant to your target audience. Search engines like these links because LinkedIn is a trusted source.

Keywords will also work within the summary and specialities sections, so do think carefully when you write your content.

Make those connections work

I think the best way to start is to contact people that you know. LinkedIn has an excellent search facility, so even if your search for a common name throws up hundreds of possibilities you can filter the results by location, company, industry and much more.

Integrate LinkedIn to your other marketing activities as well. When you meet new contacts at meetings or events invite them to connect with you via LinkedIn. The more connections you make the more other people will view your profile and become aware of you.

Joining groups (or even creating your own) is another very effective way to build awareness. It gives you the opportunity to network with people in the same industry or sector, and the more you contribute to discussions, the more value you will add.

Get recommendations

If you’ve just delivered a great service to one of your LinkedIn contacts ask them for a recommendation. Having recommendations on your profile page make a huge difference to your credibility and will enhance your reputation no end by providing tangible evidence of your expertise or skill. I would recommend that you have a minimum of 3 recommendations to complete your profile.

Contribute value

An area well worth investigating is Answers (found within More in the top navigation). People may post very generic questions or industry-specific questions. If you contribute to these you can start to establish a name for yourself – and possibly even gain yourself some ‘expertise points’ if yours is chosen as the best answer to a particular question. And any activity like this will be included in the Network Updates feed that goes to all your LinkedIn contacts, ensuring that your name is always popping up.

The more involved you can become, the more awareness you will build, the more potential you create to transform connections into leads and potential customers. Update your status, use applications such as SlideShare to share useful content and integrate your WordPress blog – you have to work your network! Of course, this takes time so do manage it wisely. I probably spend no more than a couple of focused hours per week on LinkedIn and find this is enough to build my network, check in on groups and answer questions – making sure my name crops up regularly.

Are you using LinkedIn already? Let me know if it’s helping you win business.