By John Matthews, founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises Inc.
With the introduction of social media in the last five or so years, networking and expanding your relevancy in your community has never been more productive. Unlike most advertising and media, social media enables you to create a two-way communication with your network contacts and potential customers. Therefore, the more email addresses, connections, fans, etc. that you can capture in your database, the easier it will be to communicate within your community.
Social media doesn’t just give you information, but rather, interacts with you while giving you that information. This interaction can be as simple as asking for comments, letting you vote on an article, or communicating an RSVP for an upcoming event. In the case of LinkedIn and Facebook, these social media sites can become big “catcher’s mitts,” enabling you to use these portals as repositories of information.
Proactively embracing social media is both an efficient and effective way to expand your overall brand awareness in your trade area and communities. One social media portal is that can be an excellent source for business networking within your community is LinkedIn.
LinkedIn is an Internet-based business-contact network that enables you to connect to key businesspeople in your trade area. LinkedIn allows you to identify key local contacts in your trade, geography, civic organizations and corporations — then gives you the ability to “connect” with them by sending a LinkedIn connection invitation. You also can join industry-related groups on LinkedIn and post comments on industry topics. LinkedIn is available for a fee but most, if not all the functionality can be accessed for free.
One of the strongest social media sites for networking professionals, LinkedIn has over 100 million members and growing rapidly focused mainly on business-to-business networking in contrast to Facebook, which is more social in nature. LinkedIn connects you to your trusted business contacts (and their networks) and helps you exchange knowledge, ideas, and opportunities with a broader network of professionals — many of which are with people that are two and three degrees removed from you.
The premise of LinkedIn is that the larger your network of contacts, the better positioned you are in order to garner referrals – either directly or indirectly. Referrals from LinkedIn are commonplace and since this social media portal is built from professionals that actively seek to network, new connections are generally open to expanding their contacts.
Here is the how the site works and how you can maximize its effectiveness:
Profile: Each person on LinkedIn creates a personal profile that can be made visible to all 100 million users. The profile is basically an online “resume” of your current and previous work so that others can see your background. In order to maximize your exposure, filling out your profile in detail is critical and should include:
• Complete background
• List key words
• Recommendations from others
• Relevant industry groups
After you create your profile, you can start to add people to your “network” as connections. These direct connections (first degree) are key colleagues that you know personally. You connect to these colleagues by sending them an invitation to “join your network”. Once you are connected to a direct contact, you become connected to their contacts as well. These contacts are not directly accessible to you, but rather viewed as second and third degree contacts that can be reached through your 1st degree contact.
Home Page: LinkedIn is designed with a cumulative landing page, or home page, that enables you to get a snapshot of all the activity related to your full network on one page. Think of this as command central for your network. Once you have an established network, this is an excellent place to come to every day to review opportunities in a concise fashion. Unlike other social media portals that require more time maintenance, simply spending 5-10 minutes a day here will keep you at the epicenter of activity for your network. Included on your home page are a number of key hotspots:
Connections: You can review all of the status updates of connections in your network as well as seeing new people that join LinkedIn that may be of interest to you to invite to your network.
Status Updates: This is a nice area that enables you to stay on top of the activities of your connections. See a new job title for a colleague – and send them a quick congrats message; read about a new connection in your network – reach out to them with a comment. The more you are active with your connections, the more that will put you in high esteem as an epicenter networker.
Recommendations: As you write or receive recommendations, they are posted on your profile and home page for all to see. What better way to establish credibility in your network then to have a third-party endorse your work. In addition, as you assemble recommendations on your profile, these can later be used as testimonials in relevant marketing campaigns for your use.
Group Status: When you begin to join groups (highly recommended as you will see below) you can monitor all the activities of your groups on your home page. This is advantageous to see as there are a number of discussions, new members, postings, etc. that can flag you to opportunities. Groups offer you the best way to really capitalize on growing your network with people that have relevant backgrounds and geographies.
People You May Know: This section appears daily and is an excellent area to expand your network with the ability to directly send a short introduction as well as an invite to connect. All of the people that appear here are already in your network, just not first degree connections.
Profile Views: – Profile updates, photos, status, discussions, group activities and recent connections are all shown on your home page to keep you informed of changes with your connections. It is quite amazing what you can see transform here and in some cases, it can give you “insider” information on people and companies. For instance, changes in a connection’s overall profile may signal an imminent job change or changes to multiple profiles at the same company, can indicate unrest at that company.
Q & A: – This section is an excellent way to showcase your expertise in a myriad of topics. The Q & A section can be customized to your background and as you answer questions, the questioner can assign the “best answer” classification to your answer. When this happens, you begin to position yourself as an expert in your field and this will foster more people to flock to you. Ultimately, every aspect of your activities on LinkedIn can cast you in the epicenter of activity coming and going.
Connections: – Establishing your initial network is easy with LinkedIn. Starting at your home page, select “add connections” from the tab at the top of the page. From there you can go a few ways: a) send invites to people you already have email addresses; or b) have LinkedIn find them for you. If you are using any of the following email accounts – hotmail.com, gmail.com, yahoo.com, aol.com, Outlook or Apple mail – you can automatically have LinkedIn search your databases to find out which of your contacts may already be on LinkedIn. LinkedIn will identify all those email addresses that are in your contact lists; people that you have received emails from; as well as people you have sent emails to. After a few minutes, you will be presented with a long list of potential connections that will be flagged if they are currently a member or LinkedIn or not. In either case, you may invite them to connect.
In addition, LinkedIn will allow you to look for former work colleagues from previous companies where you were in employed. These colleagues can be sent an invite, even if you do not have their current email address. Select “colleagues” from the same “add connections” page and click on your former companies to find potentially connections from the past.
Building up your contact list is critical, because the more 1st degree connections you have will lead to having more second and third degree connections. That is the start of building a larger overall network through your direct contact base. But, you shouldn’t stop there. Groups are an excellent way to expand your network to the real value of LinkedIn – connecting to people that you don’t know but SHOULD know.
Groups: – Groups are the mother lodes of connection-building on LinkedIn. Unlike other ways to connect in which you need the person’s email address, groups can open up the door to creating connections directly through messaging. The first step to maximizing your reach through groups is to search for relevant groups that make sense for you to join. You can conduct your search on the “groups” tab and type in keywords in order to find groups. Once you find a number of groups, send a request to the group organizer and they should approve you within 24 hours.
Once approved to join the group, you will have the ability to view discussions, news, jobs and most importantly, the members. In addition, you will have the ability to sort by geography – i.e. 25 miles surrounding a zip code, for instance. Building your network within the group is simple to achieve. Within the group (and with the free version of LinkedIn), you can see the top 500 members based on the number of connections they have. Although there is a feature that members can use that turns off the ability to send them a direct message, very few users on LinkedIn prohibit direct messaging. Direct messaging is critical because it gives you the opportunity to introduce yourself to people that don’t know you or you do not have their email address.
When sending a direct message, you will find greater success in “soft-selling” your introduction as a way of letting know “you are out there.” Don’t be discouraged if you do not get an immediate answer – in some cases it may take weeks, even months, but doing this only takes 10-15 seconds and you start to establish your network faster.
Companies: – Another way to expand your network is to search for contacts through the company search function. There are a few ways that you can tap this database – by company category; size of company by number of employees; and by geography. If your business and its success is contingent on the close proximity of your customers, searching by geography would be the most advantageous way to search new connections.
To search by geography, click on the “location” pull-down menu on the companies tab and put the zip code of your business. LinkedIn will search all of the connections you have in your network (first, second and third degrees) that are located near that zip code and list the companies for those connections. You will then be able to click on the companies and see what other contacts may be advantageous for you to connect with.
People: To add more connections, visit the “contacts” tab from your homepage. You can then click on “network statistics” and scroll down to the center of the page and click on “Your Region.” Clicking on your selected region will identify all of the contacts in your network – from first to second to third degrees. Your focus here would be to convert as many of your second and third degree connections into direct connections to begin to establish a closer, direct relationship with them.
By using LinkedIn, you can create a broader network of working professionals to foster relationships with and begin to build up an impenetrable circle of contacts that are exclusively yours. Targeting prospective connections via groups and companies, in addition to your already established network, will begin to develop a referral system that creates both short and long-term bonds. This network can become a very profitable way to grow your business.
John Matthews is the founder and president of Gray Cat Enterprises Inc., a strategic planning and marketing services firm that specializes in helping businesses grow in the restaurant, convenience and general retail industries. With more than 20 years of senior-level experience in retail and a speaker at retail-group events throughout the U.S., Matthews has recently written two step-by-step manuals, Local Store Marketing Manual for Retailers and Grand Opening Manual for Retailers, which are available at www.graycatenterprises.com.