LinkedIn enjoys a well-deserved reputation as the most useful social network for business owners and professionals, but many members are not taking advantage of all that LinkedIn has to offer. Yes, it’s a quick and easy way to reconnect with a co-worker from way back when or an old college friend, but the social network is also a powerful tool for lead generation, market research, and global networking. Learning about LinkedIn’s little-known and advanced features can help you unlock its potential to the greatest extent possible.

The single, simplest thing you can do to get more out of your LinkedIn account is increase your participation, suggests Andrew Hickey, who manages nearly $2 million a year in marketing spend on LinkedIn in his position as director of digital marketing at Cornell University. “Spend at least 30 minutes a day on LinkedIn, and choose your focus, (for example, expanding your network, promoting your business, contributing to a discussion, or publishing your own content around your passion or expertise),” he says. Get comfortable with what you hope to accomplish by using LinkedIn before you spend any money on premium accounts, paid marketing, or other paid aspects of the social network, he adds.

For owners of business-to-business companies, the keys to using LinkedIn as a tool for lead generation are establishing and developing a strong profile containing key words and phrases that will draw leads to it and building up your list of connections and followers. “It takes time and focus, which is why clearly establishing your audience and goals is so important,” says Lin Grensing-Pophal, owner of Strategic Communications, LLC, which works primarily with B2B businesses in service industries. Your goal is to convey a strong, professional image supportive of your brand identity. “You obviously want to let others know what you have to offer, but you definitely don’t want to come across as overtly self-promotional,” she warns.

All types of businesses can use LinkedIn as a lead-generation tool by mining competitor connections and searching for senior leaders and decision makers at companies they are targeting, says Jennifer M. Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. She also recommends disabling the “notify your network” feature, which broadcasts changes to your profile, in order to maintain the greatest control over what is being shared with your audience. “Don’t display your contacts on your profile page--that’s a prime poaching spot for your competitors,” she cautions. “Likewise, don’t let people see that you visited their page when that’s not your intent. You can make this anonymous in your settings.”

You can get even more out of LinkedIn by taking advantage of features that are not widely known, says Anthony Kirlew, founder and chief strategist of AKA Internet Marketing, a Web marketing agency. For example, you can start your own group, at no cost, which allows you to build a community you can message directly, and you can send messages (currently, up to 15 per month) to people in groups, as long as they have the message feature turned on, which most do. “Most LinkedIn users also don’t realize that they can connect with people simply by typing their name in the search bar and then clicking the ‘connect’ button,” Kirlew reveals. “If you try to connect using their profile, you have to enter information on how you know them, but this work-around can help you connect with more people faster.”

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