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You need to rethink the way you use LinkedIn. Without some of us even noticing, it has developed into a useful lead-generation tool for marketers and salespeople who are looking to build relationships with prospects.

But if you're looking for an easy lead source, you won't find it here. After using LinkedIn to build my own discussion groups, I've discovered that using it as a lead generator can be a simple process—if you're willing to invest a little time sharing your expertise and thought leadership.

Here are some ways to make the most of LinkedIn for lead generation.

1. Create a polished and personally branded profile on LinkedIn

If you haven't already, spend some time perfecting your profile to clarify what you do and what your strengths are.

Your profile should be compelling. The headline will automatically be displayed as the last job you've had, unless you change it manually.

Personal branding expert Dan Schawbel suggests that you brand yourself for the job you want, not the job you have. For instance, if you are a marketing specialist for Toyota, reword it to say "Internet-marketing expert for Fortune 500 companies."

Schawbel also suggests that your profile include keywords that recruiters or anyone else who uses LinkedIn as a talent search engine will be looking for. Ask for recommendations from clients and colleagues. What others say about you is important for helping to set yourself up as an expert in your field. Write recommendations often for folks you can honestly and fully recommend.

Also, your email address should beat the end of the summary area or in the contact field labeled "public." And don't be afraid to update your status as often as necessary. People in your group are interested in your new projects and professional achievements.

2. Connect and reconnect

Start connecting with your current and past contacts, focusing on those relationships based on trust.

It's easy to conduct a search on LinkedIn to find people whom you've lost touch with. Those people usually want to help you as much as you want to help them. Many people have gotten leads from old contacts revived through LinkedIn. Accept any invitations that make sense to you.

When you get a new business card, look up the person via LinkedIn and invite that person to connect with you. If you're a new LinkedIn user, you can import your contacts from Window Live, Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo, and AOL. Include your distinct URL in your email signature and on your traditional resume, your blog, your website, and your business card, so that others can connect with you easily.

3. Reach out to former clients

You can track what your former clients have been doing since you last saw them—with no awkwardness. When contacting a former client, instead of sending an open-ended message make a positive comment about that client's achievements and ask questions about the client's   new projects.

4. Join LinkedIn groups where your clients/customers gather

Groups can be extremely powerful to your brand. Use Advanced Search to find practitioners within your firm and in the industry at-large. Through those groups you can learn a lot about your industry by tuning in to the conversations.

You may discover new industrywide pain points and learn about options to solve those pain points. Learning more about your industry by watching from afar will give you real, everyday insight into ways you can help and connect.

5. Check out individual profiles

Find out if your prospects contribute to blogs. Learn what events they are attending and even the books they are reading. That is the beauty of LinkedIn: How many other sources will tell you where your prospect organizations' senior executives used to work?

6. Use the information to turn a cold call into a warm call

An introduction received via LinkedIn is much warmer than a cold call, because it comes with a bit of trust. You're not the stranger trying to upsell something; you come with a recommendation from a person whom the receiver is connected to, or you share a common membership in a professional group.

Even if you can't find a path to connect to someone, sending a direct message via LinkedIn is better than sending a cold email, because LinkedIn implies a business context. So when you are reviewing prospects, you can read their profile, discover their interests, and determine whether you have something in common with them to help warm up your calls with them.

7. Post relevant content on groups

Start building your credibility in the group by sharing relevant content, including blog posts, links to articles you have written, articles that quote you, and event notices for webinars.

Be sensitive to the group dynamics, and don't ever try to dominate the conversation. Your materials should be a resource, not a sales push for you or your prospects.

Add any relevant slide decks to the SlideShare application, which allows you to import your current presentations into LinkedIn. Add books to the Amazon bookshelf.

If you have a blog, Schawbel suggests you use Blog Link, which connects your blog to your LinkedIn profile, allowing you to   express your thoughts and emotions in addition to the traditional resume format.

8. Answer questions

Many group members use LinkedIn as a discussion board, and you'll find many questions posted on any given day.

Take time each day to answer or post a few questions yourself. Answer questions that are relevant to your expertise or are on subjects you're passionate about.

If you can answer a question from a leader in a company that you would like to do business with, take the time to write a detailed, high-value response. You never know who's reading the information. Lots of members gain a foot in the door because of the expertise they lend to a discussion. Visit LinkedIn Answers.

9. Create your own LinkedIn group, and share relevant content

Starting your own group gives you control over its content and reach. You can choose to open the group only to people you know, or—if doing so is appropriate and you have the time—you can open it up to a much larger audience.

The goal is to engage your audience and leverage your thought leadership to make a difference with members of your group. LinkedIn offers tips for consultants who use the channel to build their business, demonstrate areas of expertise, and leverage their network.

Check out the B2B Lead Generation Roundtable Group, which I founded. It's all about sharing ideas that focus on the many aspects of B2B lead generation, such as lead nurturing, lead management, teleprospecting, and more.

The group has grown to 3,500 members in just a few months, but I'm more excited about the quality of the discussions, from which I'm learning much.

We have rules about what can and can't be posted, and there is someone who ensures that the rules are followed. She reminds members of the rules often and messages members who are abusing the group.

If you are going to create a group, be ready for the time commitment required for the group to be successful.

10. When you have significant news in your business—such as a big product launch or a joint venture—use LinkedIn to notify your contacts through a profile update

It's that keeping-up process that will spark conversations about opportunities for both you and your contacts. It's in those conversations (which can also be done via email) that ideas will arise about prospective clients, possible partnerships, and other revenue-generating projects.

* * *

Implementing these 10 tips into your daily routine will require a time commitment. But it's easy to join the conversation for a few minutes each day and check in with various groups.

Yes, LinkedIn is still relatively new, but keep an eye on it. As it grows, people will find new and smarter ways to use it. You'll want to be there, ready to dive in.

Here are more resources that offer helpful tips for making LinkedIn an integral part of your lead-generation program:


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Brian Carroll
Brian Carroll is CEO of InTouch (startwithalead.com) and author of Lead Generation for the Complex Sale (McGraw-Hill). Reach him via bcarroll@startwithalead.com or his blog (blog.startwithalead.com).