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As a small business owner, growing your business contacts and networking is central to your business success. However, traditional networking methods can be time-consuming and expensive which is why small business owners are investing their time building their online brand presence on LinkedIn.

linkedinWith more than 70 million members connected across 200 countries, LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional network and has witnessed significant growth in Australia with more than 1.5 million members in Australia and New Zealand. Currently well over 10 percent of LinkedIn members in Australia are small business owners.

Many of these small businesses are using LinkedIn to build their professional brand, enhance their visibility online, grow their network, connect with likeminded professionals, gain insights on industry trends and recruit highly skilled candidates.

As a small business owner, there are many ways you can use LinkedIn to your advantage. Here are some tips on how you can leverage LinkedIn:

Update your own profile

If you aren’t already on LinkedIn, register and create your profile. Using your profile in the right way can be the gateway for all your potential customers, employees and industry partners to contact you. The more complete your profile, the more likely you will be found on LinkedIn or through search engines. Make your LinkedIn profile 100 percent complete through the edit my profile settings on the homepage.

Attaching a photograph adds credibility to your profile and helps others easily identify and connect with you prior to meetings or at events. Make sure you also add your education details, professional experience and a summary of your expertise and skills. If you have a company website, a blog or a Twitter account, you can link them to your profile which will help enhance your visibility and showcase your expertise in the industry.

You can use the profile completeness progress bar to check if your profile is complete and ensure that all key details required to fulfill your profile are in place. You can keep your profile active by using the LinkedIn status update feature that you should use regularly to share information about interesting developments in your company with your contacts.

[Next: Create a company profile]

Create a company profile

You can increase visibility for your company on LinkedIn and search engines by creating a company profile on LinkedIn. Company profiles offer public information about each company on LinkedIn.

To get started, go to the ‘Companies’ menu on LinkedIn and select ‘Add Company’ and enter basic information about your company, like its description, number of employees, and the industry it operates in. Follow LinkedIn’s wizard for creating your company profile – you’ll be able to add a logo, locations, and a feed for your company blog.

Find and grow your contacts

Much of a small business’ success depends on who you know and who knows you. Connecting with other industry professionals can be difficult, especially when much of your time is spent building and maintaining your business. LinkedIn gives you the opportunity to connect with people from your PC or mobile device. Networking with your contacts professionally allows them to discover the full range of your business’ capabilities.

By importing your existing contact list from Microsoft Outlook, Gmail or other email providers on LinkedIn, you can find those in your contact database who are already part of LinkedIn. This is one of the first tactics you should implement to grow your network.

You can also connect with your past and present colleagues. LinkedIn automatically recommends people you may know and you can leverage this feature to grow your contacts. You should also proactively scour through your contacts’ connections to see if there are any additional people that you might want to connect with.

You can also actively promote your LinkedIn profile as your new business card. Create a link to your LinkedIn profile in your email signature, so your potential customers and partners can connect to you.

Find people and companies

Search is one of the most popular functions on LinkedIn. Performing a ‘People Search’ will enable you to quickly find the right person at a company and determine who you know in common for a credible introduction. If this isn’t possible, you also have the option to reach out directly via an InMail – LinkedIn’s direct mail service which lets you reach anyone on LinkedIn even if you don’t have their contact information.

You can also leverage ‘Company Pages’ to get deeper information on who works at the company, their background, and other key statistics. You can use the ‘Follow a company’ feature to keep updated and gain insights on key developments with a company that you want to conduct business with.

[Next: Use recommendations]

Give and solicit recommendations

When people view profiles, one of the top features that they look for is ‘Recommendations’. They add considerable value to your LinkedIn profile and enhance your professional credibility. It is one of the best ways to improve your business reputation and create an impression on people reading your profile. If a potential customer has found your LinkedIn profile through a Google search, those recommendations could be the deciding factor between you and your competitor.

You can solicit recommendations from your past and present customers and partners. Satisfied customers are the best source of new customers. Giving recommendations will encourage others to provide you with recommendations. Even if your customer hasn’t asked for one, writing a recommendation on their profile inspires goodwill and boosts your chances of both professional and word-of-mouth referrals.

Find or create LinkedIn Groups

By joining a relevant LinkedIn small business group, you have the opportunity to not only connect with likeminded small business professionals but also gather insightful information through the discussions taking place within the group. You can find groups that you would like to participate in through the LinkedIn Groups Directory. There are lots of groups dedicated to small business both internationally and in Australia. Groups like Small Business Works Australia, Small Business Advisors Network, Small Business Support Australia and Small Business Owners of Australia provide forums for small business owners to discuss problems, seek advice and offer support to their peers. There are also plenty of groups related to specific issues which small businesses might face. And, if you don’t find the group that suits your needs, you can create your own.

Launching your own LinkedIn group enables you to lead discussions and network on a specific topic of interest. Creating your own group around your company brand is also a great way to bring partners and customers together. Leading a group will enhance your position as an expert on that topic and can result in new business opportunities.

Participate in LinkedIn Answers

LinkedIn Answers is another opportunity to gain some sound advice from industry experts to help you gain insights or test your ideas. The ‘Answers’ feature allows you to ask specific questions to the entire LinkedIn community or to specific professionals within an industry segment. Anyone can answer people’s questions, read others’ responses and even vote for the answer they think is the best. The week’s ‘Top Experts’ are featured on the Answers page, so if your answers are consistently voted the best by the network, this is a great way to build your credibility and showcase your expertise.

Participating in LinkedIn Groups and Answers is a great way to get exposure for yourself and your business. Even if you aren’t promoting yourself as an expert, Groups and Answers contributors will note your appearances, enhancing your chances of being remembered when they’re looking for someone in your field.

[Next: How to recruit employees through LinkedIn]

Recruiting employees

LinkedIn is a cost-effective and easy way to recruit potential employees. Using LinkedIn’s search tools, you can find people you might want to reach out to, even if they aren’t actively looking for a new position. Recruiting from a large pool of passive candidates means you’re tapping into the best of the market, saving you time and money as you can instantly see if the candidate is right for you and your business.

By changing your status to ‘Hiring,’ you can let members know that you’re looking for new talent. You can also post jobs through groups that you’re a member of if the group owner has turned on the ‘Jobs’ feature. LinkedIn also gives small business owners the option of posting job openings on the network.

LinkedIn Recruiter is a specialised product for companies who regularly hire candidates. It is an enterprise recruitment solution that enables you to connect and engage with passive candidates on the LinkedIn network. It has powerful search and communication tools to identify and reach highly skilled candidates. It also has built-in collaboration tools that will enable you to share project information and organise workflow with your recruitment team.

Finding and promoting your events

LinkedIn ‘Events’ enables you to find interesting conferences, tradeshows, meet-ups, webinars and local networking opportunities specifically for you based on your interests. You can find and also promote your business events to your contacts through LinkedIn Events. This includes both offline and virtual events, so you don’t always have to be in the host city to attend.

Hosting your own event is also a great way to promote your business proposition or generate thought leadership. You can promote your events through LinkedIn Events, and members can find your event in the same way you found theirs.

Access your LinkedIn network on the go

LinkedIn has launched mobile applications for iPhone and BlackBerry to make your business meetings more productive. These applications can be downloaded for free on to your device. The applications allow you to access your contacts’ profiles, helping you to prepare for meetings and giving you the extra edge with points of conversation by reviewing a contact’s background information.

Additionally, you can make new connections, receive network updates, send and receive InMails, from your LinkedIn inbox and receive recommendations of who you may want to add to your professional network, all while away from the office.

Leverage LinkedIn applications

Discover the full potential of your profile by using LinkedIn applications. The LinkedIn SlideShare application allows you to share your business presentations with your connections. This enables you to share great content that you have created and help you build your profile within your network.

TripIt is a popular travel application that allows you to share information about your next business trip to your connections. You can sync your travel schedule with your network and let them know when you’re traveling.  If you’re planning a trip to Melbourne from Sydney and you find that a few of your LinkedIn connections will be there at the same time, you can arrange to meet with them.

Cliff Rosenberg is managing director, Australia and New Zealand, for LinkedIn.

Online: http://learn.linkedin.com.

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Cliff Rosenberg

Cliff Rosenberg

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