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5 Must-Know Tips to Finding Customers on LinkedIn

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"Social media is a waste of time for small businesses!"

Just the other day, as I sat enjoying a latte at my local Starbucks, I overheard someone shouting those words to a colleague. My latte suddenly tasted a lot less sweet.

You see, it wasn't the first time I've heard that statement uttered -- and I'm sure it won't be the last. The problem is that it's completely untrue.

People who refuse to take advantage of the latest tools for business growth have a right to stagnate, but the winners of today's market must maximize every opportunity to find new customers. And where are the new customers? They're signed on to their social media accounts.

As more and more small businesses are finding out, social media isn't just for chatty teenagers anymore. Social sites are now the prime stomping grounds of the well-informed, web-savvy buyer. The perfect example of this is LinkedIn. A social tool with enormous business potential, LinkedIn is one social media platform that today's small business owners ignore at their own peril.

Imagine for a moment that you've been invited to a party. You find out that hundreds of your best potential customers will be there, too, and they'll be off their guards and willing to talk with you. Would you accept that party invitation? Of course you would!

Now, there may not be an open bar, but LinkedIn is just like that party full of potential customers -- and it's raging all the time. So put your party shoes on and join the social media festivities. Here are five must-know tips to finding customers on LinkedIn:

Make sure customers can find you: Your potential customers are using LinkedIn to find service providers through search. When they search for your category of service or product, do you show up? Very few LinkedIn users are optimizing their profiles for the keywords they want to be associated with in search. For example, if you're a commercial insurance agent, the term "commercial insurance" should be sprinkled throughout your profile and in your job description. Only with the right attention to keyword placement will your profile show up early in the results of a LinkedIn search.

Get introductions from your connections: Ever wanted to be introduced to a particular person, but didn't know where to start? LinkedIn is your answer. The site shows you how you are connected -- whether it's through mutual friends, colleagues, jobs or other connections -- to everyone else. You can also see the names and job titles of those who are connected to people in your network. With just a little research, you can identify who knows the person you want to meet, and then you can ask for a direct introduction. Remember, the introduction itself doesn't have to be through LinkedIn, but it's always an effective starting point.

Join the group: Do your customers come from particular industries? Do you look for certain types of companies when prospecting? If so, you need to get involved with LinkedIn groups. There are groups for every kind of industry or interest that you can imagine. Just search for groups that your potential customers would be involved in and join the action! Get involved by sharing content and information that you know your customers want. Answer their questions and connect with them.

Advanced search: Think of LinkedIn as the Match.com of business-to-business connections. Do you want someone with brown hair, blue eyes and an adventurous personality? In the business world, how about all the CIOs at companies with revenues between $80 million and $200 million, located within a 50-mile radius from your doorstep? With the "advanced search" option on LinkedIn, you can identify people within a wide array of parameters. Once you've identified who your potential customers are, you can often find great additional information about them through Google, Twitter, or list companies.

InMail your top prospects: Now that you've done the legwork to find customers, wouldn't it be nice to have a way to contact them directly? You're in luck! With LinkedIn's premium services, you can send "InMails" to those higher-level prospects. InMails are direct emails which go right to the person's inbox. Best of all, these messages often get rerouted to personal email addresses, which are more likely to get a reply.

Now that you have your five must-know tips to finding customers on LinkedIn, it's action time. Test out just a few tips at a time and get a sense for how this powerful social business tool can connect you with customers that you'd otherwise never meet.

How have you used LinkedIn and other forms of social media to grow your business? Please share in the comments.