What is LinkedIn?
LinkedIn is a rapidly growing professional network with over 120 million members, 60 million in the US alone. At its bare minimum, it's a place online where you can reconnect with former colleagues. But if you utilize it to its full potential, it's a powerful marketing tool and social networking resource, as well as a knowledge pool that you can tap into at any time, without consulting fees. It gives you the opportunity to build business relationships all over the world without leaving your office. People like to do business with people they know, and LinkedIn brings that personal connection to your business.
So how does it work?
You start with a profile, listing your education, skills, and professional experience. If a company or university in your profile is already in LinkedIn's database, you'll get a list of people you may know and you can send requests through LinkedIn for those people to join your network. You can also search for individual names or email addresses, or you can allow LinkedIn to search your email contacts for members. If you click "Add Connections" in the upper right corner of the page, then click the "People You May Know" tab, you will see a list of people who are connected to your contacts. You can then ask your contacts to introduce you. The idea is to "meet" new people through the people you already know to expand your existing network - "Six Degrees of Separation (or Kevin Bacon!)" for business. You can then use this trusted network to find new career opportunities, new clients, vendors, business partners or employees.
How do I get started?
The New User Guide in the LinkedIn Learning Center promises to have you up and running on LinkedIn with three steps in just ten minutes, but Dave Taylor (who writes The Business Blog @ Intuitive.com and Ask Dave Taylor!) recommends spending a good deal more time on your profile. Think of it as your online business card - the first impression you will make on potential clients or employers. Your LinkedIn profile will likely be the first search result when someone looks for you on Google, so make sure your profile is professional, complete, and up-to-date. Link your Twitter and blog updates to your profile, include a professional photo, and build your online reputation with recommendations from colleagues. Link back to your LinkedIn profile from your blog and Twitter profiles.
What will it do for my business?
As long as you have a company email address, you can set up a Company Page that customers can follow for updates on your business, or to review your products and services, and to provide you with endorsements and testimonials. Freelancers can search for work by position, location or company. Use Resume Builder from LinkedIn Labs to pull current information from your profile and generate a professional resume in seconds.
The real value for a small business is the easy access to information from a community of people willing to share. When you join LinkedIn Groups in your field, you share your questions and expertise with your peers. If you're facing a particular problem in your business, odds are someone else has already experienced that problem and solved it. With LinkedIn Answers, you can pose a question to specific connections in your network and get answers from your connections, their connections, and experts who use LinkedIn. Stay on top of the news in your industry with LinkedIn Today. You'll see not only the relevant headlines being shared on LinkedIn and Twitter, but who is sharing them and what companies they represent. With LinkedIn Search, you can query the entire network by name, title, company, location, or keywords.
What about privacy?
Your profile will be visible to your connections. You control who else can see it. You can choose to make your public profile visible to everyone or no one. You can choose which details to make visible beyond the basics (your name, industry, location and number of recommendations.) Your e-mail address is not displayed - initial communication is handled through LinkedIn. For added privacy, you can choose to display only your first name and last initial on your public profile, but your connections will see your full name. People who wish to connect with you must have your approval to do so.
All of this is free.
With paid upgrades, you get even more access, and there are many opportunities for targeted advertising as well. Use LinkedIn as a hub of information on your business and the people behind it. As LinkedIn grows, so will your audience, and the more useful information you share with others, the more people will be interested in doing business with you.