I recently had lunch with someone I had worked with years ago.  Although we had lost touch, she found me via an online networking site called LinkedIn.  Lately it seems that I’m getting more and more requests to join people’s networks. So, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone.  I decided to explore LinkedIn specifically as a business tool for myself and also pass along some of my learnings.

Small business owners know the value of networking – it increases awareness while enabling them to meet new clients, vendors, and potential employees.  As networking contacts evolve into business acquaintances and friendships, they become trusted sources for problem solving and introductions to a wider network.  And that’s what an online networking site helps you do.

What it is:  Remember the expression “ It’s not what you know but who you know”?  Online networking sites are designed specifically to help businesses and jobseekers make connections. In other words, they help you leverage ‘who you know’.

LinkedIn has 20 million users, according to their website.  The site’s concept is much like “Six Degrees of Separation”.  You create a list of your trusted connections on the site.  Many of them will likewise have a list of their own connections.   And so on.  You have access to your direct connections as well as their connections (two levels deep).  So, the site offers a way to tap into the people you know, and also get access to the people that THEY know. Here are some ideas for how you can use those contacts.

·         Sales leads.  For example, suppose you know the name of a business that you would like to call on.  But you don’t know have a contact within the business. You can search your network of connections to see if anyone currently or previously worked for that target company.  They can help you with that contact information.   Even better, your contact may be willing to make an introduction.

·         Service providers and partners.  If you’ve got a project and you’re not sure who the right vendor for the job might be, you can use your network to get recommendations.

·         Promotion.  There are a couple of ways you might promote yourself via the site.  When you join LinkedIn you create a profile.  It includes your work history, affiliations, etc.  Naturally, you’ll want to list your achievements, experience, and areas of expertise.  Others will find you when keywords they search for are found in your profile.  LinkedIn also has a space for contacts to recommend you.  It’s visible and accessible by visitors.  A third way to self-promote is by providing answers to questions posed by others. That can boost your credibility and establish your status as a subject matter expert.

·         Reestablish former contacts.  Include the names of your employers, colleges, and professional associations in your profile. You will then automatically be informed of possible connections to contact.  It’s a nice way to quickly reestablish relationships and fill them in on your current business.

·         Get answers. Business people can pose questions, so consider asking a question to find a new vendor, ask for new ideas, or test the market for your product concept.

·         Company research.  For example, if you’d like to understand a company’s buying policies, you might contact current or former employees of a company to get the scoop.

·         LinkedIn can also be used to find or fill a job.

What you should do:

  1. Take some time when creating your profile. Choose words to describe you and your business carefully for a complete, accurate and favorable impression. Care should be taken when creating the profiles to include meaningful key words, so that people can easily find you when they search.  The profile is the on-line equivalent of your 30-second “elevator speech”.
  2. Make sure the contacts you have a good relationship with the contacts you list in your network.
  3. Allocate time to work it. At first, expect to spend 30 minutes or more to create a solid profile. Then, spend a few minutes per day checking out your contacts and learning the power of the site.  Building your network will take several visits.
  4. Ask for recommendations.  The system makes it easy to ask for testimonials.  And that will significantly strengthen your profile