When most entrepreneurs think about brand-building, they assume that the best way to build a brand is to have a professional-looking website. However, websites are getting less important every day, especially for smaller firms.

First, corporate websites are getting less important every day because anybody can buy a fancy website and populate it with highfalutin' business talk. And everybody knows that such sites come pretty cheap.

Second, when customers buy from smaller firms, the people who stand behind the firm's offerings are often more important than the offerings themselves.  Big firms typically have a public track record that creates their brand; smaller firms have, well, people like you and the people who work for you.

In other words, your "brand" is increasingly based upon how you present yourself (and the people you work with) on public forums in the Internet.  And that's why LinkedIn is so damn important.

Why LinkedIn Matters

While you may have a bio posted on your website, your customers get (or should get) a better perspective of whom they're buying from when they check out your LinkedIn profiles.

Customers will look not just at your experience, but also your relationships: who has endorsed you, who has worked with you, what people have said about you, and the type of people who are in your network.

None of that information is on your website-and, if it were, it would look phony anyway.  The simple truth is that, while you have some control over your LinkedIn profile, it's widely perceived (correctly, I think) as being more objective than a corporate website.

Smart entrepreneurs realize that LinkedIn and other social networks can be more important than their websites-and therefore deserve as much, or more, serious attention.

Step by Step

With that in mind, here's a step-by-step process for turning your LinkedIn profile into a brand-builder:

1. Choose a customer-focused message. Many entrepreneurs tend to think from the inside out: This is our product, here are its features.  Instead, think from the outside in: Our customers buy from us in order to achieve this goal.

2. Reframe your experience to fit the message. Rather than treating your LinkedIn profile as an autobiography of your working life, treat it as a way to show why your experience makes you a credible supplier of whatever you're selling.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with key team members. It's not enough just to have your CEO and company profiles in line with the message. Every significant player on the team should frame his or her experience in a way that further reinforces the company's brand.

4. Expunge irrelevant/questionable contacts. Your contact list is like the chorus of a song; it's got to be in harmony with everything else. Rather than trying to get as many people as possible on your list, consider limiting it to people whose presence reinforces your core message. Also make certain that your contact list doesn't include any red flags (although this is probably more of problem on Facebook than LinkedIn). For example, one time I was checking out a prospective subcontractor and the person's first contact was a stripper named Amber.

5. Use LinkedIn as your branding focal point. Make certain that every brand-significant event (big sales, new hires, new products, etc) are reflected in your LinkedIn updates. Shorten the bio page on your website and provide a prominent link to your profile.

In fact, do anything you can to get customers and potential customers to your LinkedIn profile-because that reminds them who you really are and why they should do business with you. And that, of course, is the reason for having a brand.

None of the above is complicated or expensive, but its value, in terms of brand building, can be huge, according to personal branding expert Dan Schawbel, author of Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future. "The Web has shown us that companies have to act more like individuals," he explains. "Knowing yourself and what you're really good at is what makes you special."

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