When I started Gray Cat Enterprises in 2004, I was living in Chicago and for the first couple of years, all of my clients were based in Illinois. This was fine at the time, since I had a boatload of opportunities. Then, a buddy of mine told me about LinkedIn, so I looked into it and became an early adopter, first joining the social network in 2005 when there were 2 million users. It’s funny, but back then, the only way you could expand your network was to connect to people that you could verify that you previously knew.
I thought this was a little odd since I thought the purpose of a networking site was to EXPAND your network, not just connect with people you already knew. So, I pushed the envelope a bit and tried to reach people that I didn’t know. LinkedIn didn’t like that very much and put me in the “penalty box” limiting my functionality. This happened seven times.
Then it changed – they realized in order to grow, that had to allow people to broaden their networks. Now, according to Kinsta, “LinkedIn has over 575+ million users, with more than 260 million monthly active users. Of those LinkedIn users who are engaging with the platform monthly, 40% access it on a daily basis.”
Briefly, 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. In the case of LinkedIn, the social media site can become big a “catcher’s mitt”, enabling you to use the portal as repository of information.
When I decided to relocate my company from Chicago to Raleigh in 2010, I set it all up on LinkedIn. I picked a few zip codes in the Raleigh area; searched for the “movers-and-shakers” in the area; and sent an introductory email to each of them. I was able to set up seven (7) meetings on an exploratory meeting in 2009; two of which ended in business. I was convinced at that time that LinkedIn was going to be a key contributor to my overall success as an entrepreneur. LinkedIn took away the geographic barriers of relationship development and allowed my business to expand outside of Chicago. To date, I have done business in over twenty states and several countries.
For those looking to optimize your LinkedIn experience, here is the how the site works (for the newbies) and how you can enhance its effectiveness:
Profile: Each person on LinkedIn creates a personal profile that can be made visible to all 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 – I can’t stress this enough – and should include:
- Complete background – give details!
- 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 (1st 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 2nd and 3rd 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. I can’t think of a better way to establish credibility in your network than 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. I have over 70+ recommendations that allow me to use for specific requests from clients. I simply put all of these recommendations in a word document; search by key words related to the proposed scope of work; and include relevant testimonials with my proposal.
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 1st 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.
Connections: Establishing your initial network is easy with LinkedIn. Starting at your home page, click on the “search bar” from the tab at the top of the page. From there you can search by people, jobs, content, companies, schools and groups. If you select one of those, you can fine-tune the search by applying filters at the top of that page. This way you can really narrow your prospects to the most relevant ones.
Building up your contact list is critical, because the more 1st degree connections you have will lead to having more 2nd and 3rd 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. 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. I write a number of blogs that are posted on my website and group-specific blogs are very well-received by the members because it is relevant to them. In addition, building your network within the group is simple to achieve. 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. Simply type the name of the company in the search bar and it will tell you how many employees went to your school; how many are already on LinkedIn, etc. If you click on the “employees on LinkedIn”, you can then apply further filters to fine tune your search – i.e., by geography, by school, by degree away from you, etc. If you take advantage of LinkedIn’s Sales Navigator tool (there is a fee for this), you can further drill down your search.
People: To add more connections, visit the “my network” tab from your homepage. LinkedIn will automatically group potential connections into classifications for you – by geography, college, employer, etc. Your focus here would be to convert as many of your 2nd and 3rd degree connections into direct connections to begin to establish a closer, direct relationship with them.
I am living proof that 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, operations and marketing services firm that specializes in helping businesses grow in the restaurant, convenience and general retail industries. With more than 25 years of senior-level experience in retail and a speaker at retail-group events throughout the U.S., Matthews has recently written Game-Changing Strategies For Retailers, which is available on Amazon. In addition, he has two step-by-step manuals, Local Store Marketing Manual for Retailers and Grand Opening Manual for Retailers, which are available at www.graycatenterprises.com.