Since its inception in May 2003, LinkedIn has been a great way for professionals to build their network and connect to other like-minded individuals. however, one of the better uses of linkedin is in generating new business development opportunities and referral sources for your firm.

Many savvy marketers and practitioners already know this. It's time you knew it, too. Here are some of the basics for using LinkedIn to drive traffic to your Web site and generate quality leads.

Commit to making LinkedIn part of your everyday activities. Just like traditional networking and marketing, if you don't work at it every day, it won't be effective. At a minimum, spend 10 to 15 minutes a day on the site making connections to those people you would like to do business with or who could refer business your way. It's important to remember that networking, even online, is still a two-way street. So be sure that you are able to demonstrate to that other person that there is value in connecting with you, too.

Be realistic in your expectations. You probably won't see immediate results from your efforts. Be patient and set realistic expectations for when you might uncover good prospects and referral sources. The key is to keep putting in the effort and making connections. Over time you will build rapport with others and they will seek you out when they have a need you can help them with.

Develop a comprehensive profile. You will want to make sure that you put yourself in the best possible light with respect to your education, experience and recognition. Be complete, but also be honest. Just like with a traditional resume, if you stretch the truth, you will eventually be found out. Make sure you ask for, and provide, recommendations from your peers. This is a great way to build credibility and add to your reputation. If you aren't sure what you want your profile to look like, take a look at some of your peers or co-workers who use LinkedIn regularly as a reference point.

Start adding good connections. The key word here is good. Just like when building your traditional network, you want to connect to only those people that you already know or with whom you have had some contact. It's not a competition to see who has the most connections. It's about building a quality online network to foster business development and referrals. You'll want to err on the safe side, so don't accept connection requests from people you don't know. Make sure to connect with co-workers, vendors, civic or professional association members, business partners, and former co-workers.

Join relevant groups that interest you. There are over 850,000 interest groups on LinkedIn. That means there's one or more that should interest you. Go to the Groups page and search for relevant groups to join. They can be industry-related, geographically related or special-interest-related. You will definitely want to join groups that are related to trade or industry associations you belong to, as well as those groups that are active in certain professions. (See box below.)

Once you join, you need to keep up on what other group members are discussing and be prepared to contribute. Joining the group isn't enough; you must be active within it. Don't overdo it with group memberships until you're sure that the groups you already belong to will be good for finding good lead opportunities or referral sources. Once you are comfortable with the idea of becoming active within your groups, take the time to regularly assess whether or not certain groups still make sense for your goals. If the group doesn't make sense any longer or has outlived its usefulness, consider getting out of the group.

Comment on discussions and start your own. Part of the process of building up your expertise and reputation is contributing, in a constructive way, to the online conversation. You should seek out discussions where you can add real value with intelligent, concise and relevant comments. Don't make the mistake of self-promotion or a hard sell. This is about building relationships, not closing a sale.

One of the best ways to build up credibility and thought leadership is to start a discussion of your own on a topic that is timely and important to those in a particular group. Start by asking a question to get the conversation going and be sure that you participate as well. By demonstrating your expertise and knowledge, you will be gaining potential clients in the process.

Use your profile to drive traffic to your Web site and increase attendance at your events. When you host a seminar or webinar, you should use your LinkedIn profile to promote the event and drive traffic to your Web site for event registration. After the event, invite your attendees to connect with you on LinkedIn. If you have just created a new thought-leadership whitepaper, promote it on your profile and link it back to your Web site. These are great ways to build and strengthen the bonds between you and your potential customers.

Take your networking to the next level. If you have done all of the other activities in a timely, professional manner, you should be able to start to identify potential prospects and referral sources. Once you have them identified and it makes sense, you should reach out to them with an e-mail or phone call if feasible. You may wish to use your newfound connectivity and visibility to set up a face-to-face meeting to explore the possibility of gaining a new client. Don't feel like you are interrupting their work day. Like most networking opportunities, people are open to connecting and meeting if it makes sense.

The goal you should be striving for in utilizing LinkedIn is pretty simple. You want to engage an audience and build your prospecting network in order to drive your business development and lead generation efforts. If you do this consistently and professionally, you will be rewarded with new growth opportunities for you and the firm.

 

Timothy Allen is the director of practice development for WebsterRogers LLP, a South Carolina-based regional accounting and consulting firm. Reach him at tallen@websterrogers.com.

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