Having a strong LinkedIn presence can help you create and maintain professional connections, whether you’re an independent small business owner, a sales affiliate of some larger organization, or even just an individual job-seeker.
The key to strength lies in putting your best foot forward: complete your profile, forge genuine connections, participate in the social aspect of the networking site whenever possible, and adapt as necessary.
“A professional picture and a good headline is where it starts,” said Bill Garrett, CFP® , president of Garrett Wealth Management , in an interview. “But the real time has to be spent crafting your message, making sure you’ve got it focused to appeal to the audience you want to connect with, and building personal connections out of electronic ones.”
Whether you’re just starting on LinkedIn or looking to build an existing presence, here are some things to keep in mind – from nuts and bolts to more advanced practices.
Complete Your LinkedIn Profile and Get Connecting
In order to grow your presence on LinkedIn, you first have to create one.
Start by making sure your profile is complete. Use a professional headshot for your photo, and make sure the Summary section is filled out with a short blurb about who you are and what you do. Filling in your “Experience” and “Education” sections can help LinkedIn suggest more possible connections, which can help to grow your network. You may also want to customize your public URL to make it easier to remember and prettier for inclusion on email signatures and business cards.
Once your profile is complete, get connecting.
Start by importing your contacts – and customer lists, if you have them – on at least a quarterly basis. Make sure you’re connected on LinkedIn with all the people you currently connect with at work, even if it feels weird to ask for a connection with people you talk to all the time.
Any time you meet someone who might be useful to your job search or business, make it a habit to send an invitation to connect immediately after you meet them.
But one word of caution to the new user: even if you’re on LinkedIn to promote your business, now is not the time to sell. Focus on relationship-building instead. When Garrett reaches out to potential clients via LinkedIn, he’s got the next step in the relationship ready to go in the form of a survey.
“Even if they’re not interested in my services,” he said, “I ask if they wouldn’t mind filling out an informal survey of people like my clients.” These surveys can sometimes yield surprising – and potentially lucrative – results.
Garrett once connected with a successful venture-capitalist who didn’t need help handling investments but did have a potentially serious oversight in his financial planning: there was no beneficiary on his IRA, the assumption being that the wife would get everything. Bill pointed out all the reasons that assumption might not be safe, and they got to talking.
“A relationship was formed in the interaction,” said Garrett, “and the other services I provide for a fee came up as a natural part of the conversation. I don’t have to handle his investments, but because of the personal connection we made, I was able to demonstrate than I can sure help with other aspects of financial planning.”
Make It Personal
Remember that despite its professional leanings, LinkedIn is a social network – so be social. As Garrett’s experience demonstrates, it’s all about making connections and building relationships, or at least creating the potential for them.
Whenever you reach out to a new contact, send a personalized message . It’s fast and easy to see someone’s picture and simply hit “Connect,” but resist the temptation to take the easy route.
“It’s amazing the difference a genuine, personalized invitation can make,” Garrett said. “A lot of the people I connect with are CPAs and busy executives. For these people to give their time and interest to someone they don’t know – just based on a personalized LinkedIn message – is really something special.”
“Connection” is the name of the game on LinkedIn, and the more meaningful the connection is, the better. When you receive invitations from people you don’t know, don’t be afraid to do some screening. Maybe you have a vague recollection of the person, or maybe you’re pretty sure you’ve never met them at all. Instead of just accepting or ignoring, though, reach out. You can say something like:
Thanks for reaching out to me on LinkedIn! I’ll have to ask you to jog my memory on where we met – I’m a little embarrassed by that confession, but life is busy!
Legitimate connection-seekers will refresh your memory, and you can use your judgment with the rest.
Three Levels of Mastery: Be Personable, Be a Resource, Be an Expert
Having a complete profile and a healthy network is a good start, but you won’t get the most out of LinkedIn if you’re not actively engaged.
“Once you get people connected to you,” Garrett said, “you’ve got to stay top of mind. And remember that people want to be educated, not sold to.”
There are three levels of “mastery” when it comes to LinkedIn, according to Tom Charla, director of business markets integration at MassMutual: being personable, being a resource, and being an expert.
When you log in to LinkedIn, you’ll see a feed made up of your contacts’ posts and shares. Take a look through the feed and comment on posts you find interesting. Share thought-provoking articles you come across on the web – whether they’re about your field or not.
You may also want to join some LinkedIn Groups, where smaller subsets of LinkedIn users gather around specific topics. A quick search yields available groups in your areas of interest, and you can request to join any one of them. Once you’re in, it’s the same drill: take a look at what your group is posting, comment and repost as appropriate.
If you’re using LinkedIn to grow your business, of course you want to advertise your value – but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t put people off. A great way to do that is by simply being valuable, which you can show off through the things you post and the conversations you join.
Being personable is a start down this road, but for even more power, strive to become a trusted resource in your online community.
Be a Resource
When commenting or posting, go more for thought leadership and less for a sales pitch. If you have relevant experience and can contribute to a conversation, do so by saying something along the lines of “I faced a similar situation, and in my experience XYZ was pretty successful”, but don’t see every open comment section as an opportunity to promote yourself.
Instead, promote others. If you have existing clients, LinkedIn can be a great place to highlight what they do. You can raise awareness of their business with your entire network and strengthen your relationship with the client in doing so – a win-win.
And if you’ve joined a group or two but you’re still in “stalking” mode – that is, reading posts and comments without contributing anything of your own – this is the level at which you’ll want to start jumping in on those conversations.
Be an Expert
You’re sharing interesting articles, you’re commenting on your connections’ posts and participating in groups – now what?
The next step, if you have the time and interest, is to start creating your own content. In addition to writing posts and uploading photos, LinkedIn also has a built-in publishing engine where you can share articles of your own creation.
Generating a library of original content can be as simple as choosing a theme and writing a series of short posts on that topic. Decide on a cadence for original content – Weekly? Monthly? – and choose something you’re knowledgeable about to write on. Break it into small chunks. You can even write a few posts ahead of time and share them at the frequency you’ve decided on.
If you find you really enjoy writing content to share via LinkedIn, you may want to learn more about search engine optimization (SEO) and make sure you’re using key words and phrases that will make your content more searchable, on or off LinkedIn.
And it doesn’t have to be all business all the time – in fact, it may be better if you mix things up a bit. “Don’t be a one-trick pony,” said Charla. “Have at least two areas of interest, one professional and one personal.”
Nurture Your Investment, and Be Patient
LinkedIn is all about building a professional network, but remember that growing your network requires a personal investment of effort and time. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not LinkedIn-famous in your first week. And remember that while LinkedIn is a professional site that can help you grow your business, its users are still people, and that’s who you’re really connecting with.
“For years I languished at about 150 connections,” Garrett observed. “Since I refined my LinkedIn presence with a strong message and a focus on building solid relationships, I’ve got 700 connections and more requests coming in all the time.”