All too often I receive resistance when I suggest to a client that she utilize LinkedIn to build vendor, partner, and prospect relationships. But what might first feel like an intimidating pilgrimage into foreign land can result in a journey of growth, connection, and prosperity. All it takes is a little know-how—and the willingness to put yourself out there. 

With more than 135 million people and in excess of seven million companies on LinkedIn, we know that it has something to offer any business owner. "All businesses will benefit from a company blog as their primary social media marketing tool," says Barbara Rozgonyi of WiredPRWorks. "And we recommend LinkedIn as the foundational social network. Whether or not LinkedIn is where you spend most of your social media time, it may be the most important in terms of corporate social equity."

In fact, according to a study released by Perfomics, nearly 60 percent of people said LinkedIn is the most important social network.

"From optimizing key profiles and outfitting a company page, LinkedIn is the social network that reflects your organization's pro-social side," Rozgonyi says. "Once you have your company's corporate communications foundation in place, you have an anchor strategy to apply throughout your social media marketing system," she adds.

If you question the value of time spent on LinkedIn, remember that it isn't just for sharing information and idle chitchat; it's a great place to check out your competition and find viable prospects. In fact, you can research other companies and set up a list of target companies to track and follow throughout the social media sphere. 

To research connections and target customers for business development on LinkedIn, Rozgonyi says that there a few basic things you must know.

  • LinkedIn's advance search lets you target people, groups, and companies. Here you can type in a search term [skill, certification, industry, company, etc.]. Then, check the filters [location, company size, seniority, etc.] for a more defined search. You'll see results that include a photo, title, and connection to you—something you can't get on any other network.
  • Check out LinkedIn's skills section. Here you can research skills and search terms. You'll find related terms, people and groups who best match the skill.
  • Make a list of your target companies, go directly to the company site and locate someone you'd like to connect with. Then check to see what LinkedIn groups they belong to, join one of them and send them an invitation based on your common membership. This commonality will increase the odds of your invitation being accepted.

But you're not the only one out there researching companies. Don't forget that your customers may want to learn more about you. Where will they go to that? A link to your LinkedIn profile offers more substance than the brief bio that's probably on your website. Make sure that your profile reflects your accomplishments. "Too often, a flat profile offering only a few lines is what awaits them on LinkedIn," Rozgonyi warns. "Don't be that guy!" She reminds us that it's easy for any company to set up a LinkedIn company page, taking only about 15 minutes.

Once you have set up your company page think about how you can integrate LinkedIn throughout your sales and marketing strategy. Rozgonyi has the following suggestions:

  • Utilize LinkedIn's Card Munch app at networking events and on sales calls to connect to your prospects right away. Make sure you offer a free report or something else with value in your invitation to connect.
  • Add LinkedIn's blog application to your personal profile to pull in company blog updates.
  • Install the slideshare application into your personal profile. Upload a PowerPoint about your company's services and the presentation will appear on your profile.
  • Invite customers to leave recommendations on the products and services page on your LinkedIn company page.

Like any social media tool, LinkedIn is about creating and nurturing relationships so make sure you put out the welcome mat. "It's important to be known for being approachable, visible, and helpful in groups by sharing information, leading discussions, and contributing to the conversation," Rozgonyi says. To achieve this, make a list of people you want to stay in touch with and follow their updates, leaving comments, and engaging in conversation. When you send your invitations, let people know why you want to connect and thank them for their consideration. And when you accept an invitation, offer to answer questions or exchange ideas about your area of expertise.  Ask them a question to get a conversation going, just as you would at a networking event.

You can also add value by selecting articles to share that match your area of influence. Need help finding them? Check out LinkedIn Today. It presents the top shared news by industry which you can click and share with your connections. It's that easy.

Something else that makes connecting easy is the feature that allows you to ask and answer questions on LinkedIn. This handy section, located under the "more" tab, gives you insights into what people think about the topics you're interested in. You simply select the category and send a request to people you’d like to hear from. You can use the answers to contribute to a research project, a white paper, or a blog post.

And, according to Rozgonyi, answering questions (also located under the "more" tab) on LinkedIn is a proven strategy for positioning you or your business as the go-to resource in your niche. Like most marketing tactics, the more strategic your answering efforts, the better your results. Just browse the categories and select a few that you want to watch. LinkedIn even helps you decide by suggesting categories for you.  If your answer is selected as the best, thank the person who asked the question for selecting you. To give your answers life beyond LinkedIn, repurpose your comments as a blog post, an article or a feature in your organization’s communications.

Barbara Rozgonzi is living proof that becoming a recognized thought-leader on LinkedIn will give you credibility and visibility. She says that being committed to adding value is the key. "The most successful business development people understand that sales is not about numbers, products, features or closing—it's about people understanding and improving relationships."

What about you? How do you leverage LinkedIn?