( 2 of a 7 part series on social media)

The value of being connected and transparent is so high that the roadbumps of privacy issues are much lower in actual experience than people’s fears. –Reid Hoffman, founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn

A powerful social networking tool for the business professional, LinkedIn recently reported over 100 million registered users where over 50 percent of those claim to have decision making authority. This social networking platform allows professionals to connect with others individually and to participate in up to 50 of the 800,000 + available groups. Used correctly, LinkedIn provides a great opportunity to build one’s network, maintain existing relationships and become an excellent source for generating leads.

So, how should one use LinkedIn to achieve benefits on a professional level? Following are a few suggestions…

1. Using appropriate keywords for search, create an interesting profile that highlights your professional achievements and work history.

2. Build your professional network by connecting with peers as well as re-connecting with former business associates and colleagues. Searching for professional connections within your network by three degrees expands your pool of customers and prospective employees plus generates leads. If appropriate, ask for introductions to decision-makers or referral sources. Moreover, LinkedIn can double as a valuable contact management tool when connecting with other professionals within your industry.

3. Actively participate in up to 50 of LinkedIn’s 800,000+ available common-interest groups that are categorized by industry, profession and special interest. Replying to a question or contributing to the conversation is a subtle way to demonstrate your expertise to a prospect, customer and / or vendor without appearing obnoxious.

4. Turn cold calls into warm leads by creating business meeting opportunities via online connections and introductions first.

5. Position yourself as a thought leader in your field or industry by providing value-added content, posting useful articles, and answering questions.

6. Help your contacts by making an introduction, posting a well-deserved testimonial on one’s profile page or congratulating your associate on an achievement.

p_linkedin-keyboard7. Perform your own market research by submitting a question to a group.

8. Listen to your customer to gain a deeper understanding of what your company or product stands for in his mind.

9. Build brand equity for your organization by demonstrating your company’s differentiators and explaining meaningful benefits to your contacts and the customer. According to Erik Qualman, the author of Socialnomics, 92 percent of consumers today cite word-of-mouth, or referrals, as the best source for product and brand information, up from 67 percent in 1977.

10. Positioning your firm as the industry’s knowledge source should lead to a competitive advantage and justify higher pricing in the marketplace.

Investing just one hour per week, LinkedIn is the professional online community for building and maintaining business connections. As with any social group, whether online or offline, it takes time and commitment to build a network. Use LinkedIn as a tool to build your community, offer your expertise and differentiate your organization. Be patient, be consistent, be transparent and act on a social media plan.

Written by Michelle Wicmandy. Michelle is a featured blog writer for forGreen Marketing & Design on topics of interactive and social media marketing.