More than 60 million people now have a profile and connections on LinkedIn, and this number is growing daily. Yet many are still wondering, “What does this online network provide that I can use to my advantage?” Another question that keeps popping up is, “Why use LinkedIn when there are Facebook, MySpace and so many other social networking sites?” And last but not least: “How do I use LinkedIn in a way that brings immediate results?”

The Single Most Important Benefit

LinkedIn’s most powerful benefit is that it lets you find the right people and the connections you already have with them. It makes the networks of people you know visible. LinkedIn shows you your second- and third-degree networks (i.e., your network’s networks, and their networks) and the pathways to them.

Why is this so important? Many people have difficulty enough just keeping track of their own (i.e., their first-degree) network. It is virtually impossible to know who your network knows. LinkedIn makes this visible. If your goal is to expand your business, this is extremely powerful. Many people limit themselves to their own network when looking for new customers. But what if you started by defining the kind of person you are looking for, discovering who they are and then finding out who could introduce you to them? This is where LinkedIn can be of tremendous value.

Suppose you live in San Diego, and you have found that the best candidates for your products or services are owners of boutiques, exclusive apparel shops or clothing outlet stores.

Before the advent of LinkedIn, you might pick up the Yellow Pages and start cold-calling those businesses—likely without much success. Or you might look at the names of the stores and think of whom you might know who could introduce you—and when you couldn’t think of anyone, give up.

Today, you can simply log onto LinkedIn and do an advanced search with the parameters, “Owner, Apparel & Fashion, San Diego.” You will find not only the exact names of these people, but also the connections you share with them.

Looking at the mutual connections you have with your target customer, you might discover that a local boutique shop is connected with… your neighbor! You didn’t know this before, because fashion has never come up in your conversations. After discovering the connection on LinkedIn and talking to your neighbor about it, you find out that she has actually worked with the owner of the boutique in the past. When she hears about your goal, she agrees to write an email and introduce you. Five days later you are invited to have a talk with the boutique owner and you decide to do business together.

How Does LinkedIn Compare to Facebook and MySpace?

LinkedIn is a business networking website. This means its members are more open to doing business together, while members on the other social networking sites are more focused on sharing personal experiences.

Everyone knows it is easier to get business through referrals than by making cold calls. When someone refers a new customer to you, this person is “presold” by your mutual contact because of the trust that already exists between them.

Many sales and network marketing courses teach that you should ask your current customers and network for referrals. However, most often people get only a few referrals, because the people in their networks only think of a very small part of their networks at the moment they are asked.

LinkedIn can help you overcome this hurdle by letting you look directly at your networks’ networks, so you can find out who they know. Then you can bring up a connection you’ve found in conversation—online or offline—and ask your contact if they are willing to make an introduction. Overall, people love to help. Help your network help you by providing them with names of people who might be of interest to you.

While Facebook has many great features, the search function is not geared to do advanced searches with detailed parameters. This makes it much more difficult to find the business profiles of people who are in your networks’ networks, because they have to give you permission before you can see their profile. Facebook is a great tool for building and maintaining personal relationships, but LinkedIn can boost your professional relationships and your business.

How to Find New Customers with LinkedIn

Here are several ways to expand your business network on LinkedIn:

LinkedIn is a powerful yet widely underused tool for business networking. It lets you easily find new customers, partners, suppliers, coaches, experts and any other person who can help you grow your business.

JAN VERMEIREN is an international speaker and founder of
Networking Coach. He is the author of
Let’s Connect! and How
to REALLY Use LinkedIn. Jan and his team specialize in online
and offline networking, referral presentations and training courses.