Point. Click. Profit. (As published in The Business Journal)

Using LinkedIn for Referrals

LinkedIn Referrals

LinkedIn is, for many, the forgotten stepchild of social media. It lacks Twitter’s buzz or Facebook’s reach. But its fortunes are changing. For one, it had a huge IPO this year, doubling its opening price on its first day. And its revenue projections for 2011 are impressive: $475 million to $485 million.

But the real reason I see LinkedIn continuing to thrive in the future is under the surface. Through its Groups and Answers applications, the site offers a place for professionals to connect and collaborate, sharing news, questions and answers about the challenges they want to overcome in getting their jobs done.

Through these tools, LinkedIn offers something tangible and lasting that its social media cousins lack: community credentials. Sure, all these social networks allow you to brag about how many friends and followers you have. Celebrity accounts like Ashton Kutcher and CNN can host friendly competitions to see who can be the first to a million followers.

But only LinkedIn provides tools for those connections to vouch for your abilities and trustworthiness. The first and most obvious tool is recommendations. I routinely ask clients for a recommendation after a job well done, and they’re usually happy to provide one. Then, when I refer a prospect to my profile, I know they’ll get a good feel for my value through those virtual referrals. (Of course, I also cross-post the recommendations to my website, since LinkedIn made it so easy for me to collect them.)

The next badge comes from groups (http://www.linkedin.com/myGroups). You can join industry-related and interest-related LinkedIn groups and participate in conversations there. By sharing relevant news and helpful articles, you can contribute to discussions with your peers and, potentially, your clients. By default, the list of groups to which you belong are displayed at the bottom of your personal profile.

The best measure of value, however, comes from LinkedIn Answers (http://www.linkedin.com/answers/). Answers is a forum where members ask questions and–you guessed it–get answers. And if you are the one who provides that perfect answer, you’ll even get a badge on your profile announcing your expertise!

In the fall of 2008, I came across this question in the Web Development category, “How can I convince small business owners to invest in a quality website instead of creating a template site with Wal-Martesque companies such as GoDaddy.com, etc.?”

I was starting my business at the time, and the question had real relevance to me, so I took a stab at answering it, partly to develop my own answer and have it in mind should the topic come up during client meetings.

I wrote three brief paragraphs about understanding the business needs of the client, providing a consultative relationship and designing effective marketing. Then, I forgot about it. Several days later, I discovered my advice was selected as the “Best Answer” by the asker. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a badge on my profile reading “Expertise in Web Development (1 best answer).”

That was a nice surprise! I would have been satisfied enough to have provided useful advice and helped someone else with the same challenges I was facing, but it was that much sweeter to have that success noted on my permanent record.

Trolling for opportunities to directly plug your products and services is not the ideal approach, of course. It’s transparent and off-putting. However, by addressing the needs and concerns of questioners with an honest appraisal of available solutions and drawing distinctions that help them make an informed decision is a great way to build trust and establish your expertise.

So, the next time you’re ready to pop over to Facebook and kill fifteen minutes checking out updates from your friends–their latest movie reviews, favorite brews and yesterday’s news–try instead looking for a question or two on LinkedIn and see if you have helpful advice to give. Even if it doesn’t directly result in a new lead, it could be the beginning of a fruitful trust-building campaign. After all, helping someone in need is even more buzz-worthy than your last Tweet.

 

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