LinkedIn logoI really like using LinkedIn. If you’re connected to me through LinkedIn then you’ll know that I am an active user of this particular social networking tool.

Not only is it a really effective way of building up contacts, it’s great for researching companies and lead generation (where else can you get such up-to-date information on who’s who and who you should be talking to?), and you can also start to build up a presence by asking questions, promoting events and taking part in LinkedIn Groups.

Using LinkedIn for business development has been a common theme amongst a number of my clients recently, and I firmly believe that it can work really well for small businesses. Sometimes even better than the social media ‘kings’ of Facebook or Twitter. I ran a poll of small business owners and they voted LinkedIn as the most effective social media tool for small businesses.

Just how successful LinkedIn can be all comes down to how well you use it. So I thought it would be worth sharing some hints and tips that will help you generate more new business leads using it.

First things first – your LinkedIn Profile

At the most basic level, it’s important to get your page set up correctly, creating a full and comprehensive profile that clearly explains what you do and what you can offer. Take a look at ‘LinkedIn profiles – the top mistakes to avoid’ for the low down on how to make your profile page work hard for you.

Don’t forget that you should periodically review and update this page. And connecting your Twitter account with LinkedIn is a really good idea – make sure your Tweets are appropriate for LinkedIn though. LinkedIn is very different to Twitter in terms of the tone and what people expect to read about. They don’t want to see all your ’good mornings, nice day, cold here this morning, off to a meeting’ type messages – share valuable content and expert opinion!

I always think of Twitter as a buzzy drinks party whereas LinkedIn is more like a business meeting or dinner. Much more formal.

Start connecting and building your network

LinkedIn is all about creating networks, so you need to get connecting. As well as linking with business and personal contacts you know, you can request to connect with other businesses or people that you want to target or who might be good associates or partners for your own business.

One word of warning when you’re doing this, do take a personal approach (after all, that’s what small businesses are all about) and don’t send out LinkedIn’s generic default connection message to loads of people. Personally, I don’t like it and from my own experience, it definitely gets lower connection rates – a personal message and an indication of why you are interested in connecting always works best. And don’t say you’re a ‘Friend’ if you don’t know the person, it’s even more likely to get their back up!

Don’t forget to monitor existing connections, particularly if you’re looking for inroads into specific companies. As you search for companies you can check for first and second tier connections and, from that information, any shared connections. It’s those shared connections that you can then contact and request an introduction via LinkedIn – a very powerful business development tool.

How to use LinkedIn Groups

You can also join all kinds of LinkedIn Groups, and this is great for offering advice, becoming a thought leader and generally building a business brand presence. It’s important not to forget the ‘softer’ benefits of this – interacting with others through these types of forums allows your personality to emerge, so it’s a great way in which people can become familiar with you and come to both respect and like you. And don’t just join groups that are relevant to your business or industry. You should be looking to create a dialogue with prospective customers, so think beyond your immediate industry and look for groups where your expertise could be useful.

Don’t forget, take a look at LinkedIn Answers as well – if there’s a question that relates to what you do, then share your knowledge, offer advice or tell people what you think.

LinkedIn is not rocket science, all it requires is regular attention and maybe a little bit of detective work every now and again, and it need only take 15-30 minutes every week. Make it a marketing habit, along with your other ongoing marketing activities. Like most things that are nurtured, you may have to wait for a while to see the full results. But there are definite rewards to be reaped.

Has LinkedIn opened new doors or helped you to win business? It would be great to hear your LinkedIn success stories.