From the October 2011 issue of Entrepreneur

To me, LinkedIn has always seemed like more of a place to hunt for a new gig than anything else. And since I haven't been in the job market for a while, I've paid it little mind.

Plus, I've always thought LinkedIn was kind of ... well, boring. If Facebook is a rave at a hip downtown hot spot, LinkedIn is a stuffy reception with piped-in music at one of those soulless function facilities conveniently located at the end of an exit ramp.

Does that sound harsh? For sure. But now I've realized that I couldn't have been more wrong.

While the early adopters flock to Google+ and our kids and moms become power-users on Facebook, LinkedIn is where business gets done. Execs from all Fortune 500 companies are there, and 59 percent of those active on social networking sites say LinkedIn is their platform of choice over Facebook or Twitter, up from 41 percent who called LinkedIn their most important social account a year earlier, according to a June report by Performics and ROI Research.

LinkedIn, it turns out, is a happening place. As of this spring, it has more than 100 million members in more than 200 countries, on all seven continents. In June--following a splashy and successful May initial public offering--LinkedIn counted 33.9 million unique visitors, up 63 percent from a year earlier, according to internet analytics firm comScore. That traffic meant it eclipsed Myspace as the second most popular social network on the web (after Facebook). (Of course, suggesting that LinkedIn eclipsed Myspace is a little like noting that the Rolling Stones are more popular than The Wiggles. The former remains relevant and continues to increase its audience, whereas the latter has limited and specific appeal--albeit to a passionate and loyal following.)

All of this adds up to making LinkedIn the dark horse in social networking. Or, as my friend Greg Straface calls it (he handles business development at Boston advertising and marketing agency PJA), the "unsung hero" of the social platforms.

It turns out--as I suspected--there's an awful lot of job searching going on at LinkedIn. But there's much more going on over there, too. Market-research firm Lab42 finds that top-level executives and entry-level workers use LinkedIn differently: Younger members use the site mostly to post résumés and network for jobs, while more experienced professionals use it to demonstrate thought leadership and expertise, promote their businesses, conduct market research and--perhaps most important--win new business.

So how might companies use it to win new business, specifically?

  • Target searches for keywords you've identified as central to your business. For PJA, Straface targets "VP of marketing," specific ZIP codes and company names to identify key contacts to call, e-mail, InMail (send a message via LinkedIn's internal messaging system) or forward a hard copy of his agency's portfolio.
  • Track who is looking at your profile and your staff's profiles. Straface then researches those companies in more depth, identifying their marketing directors and sending out the agency portfolio by FedEx to land on their desks the next day (and again following up with a phone call, e-mail or InMail).
  • Research, or as Straface calls it, do "reconnaissance" work. Watching (via Google Analytics) which domain names visit the PJA site on any given day gives him a clue about which companies might be in the market for a new agency. Back at LinkedIn, he can research the top decision makers to proactively approach--again, via a call, InMail or portfolio outreach.
  • Set up a company page. Setting up your business as a "company" on LinkedIn isn't going to generate a bunch of leads, but it does give you an opportunity to have a presence on LinkedIn beyond a personal profile to ratchet up your company's charisma. I like the way you can embed banner images and videos in your company page, as well as feed your blog posts and tweets. You can also feature your products on your page and seek recommendations for them. That's a kind of social proof that only enhances your credibility.
  • Discern patterns. Notice who's connected in your industry. In the marketing agency world, for example, there are several key consultants often tapped to help companies with an agency search. Noting that one of those consultants is suddenly connected to several execs at a single company may indicate that the company is poised to begin an agency search. "Which suggests to me that I might want to get my brand in front of them both," Straface says.
  • Participate in LinkedIn groups catering to your target market in order to engage in conversations with the right people. Seek out groups with lots of activity rather than simply lots of members. (You'll have to join them to get a sense of the activity.) For Straface, those groups target CMOs and business-to-business marketers. He monitors each group's discussion posts and responds thoughtfully with content rather than a pitch. The goal is to engage rather than sell outright.

Does all of this work? Yes, although it takes some focused effort. Straface says he spends anywhere from one and a half to two hours per day on the platform. But to him, it's worth the effort. PJA has won actual business via LinkedIn: inquiries, agency pitches and at least two new accounts worth between $300,000 and $400,000. Mining LinkedIn in this way, he says, "is only the tip of the iceberg."

Of course, be aware that your competitors are also able to apply these same tips and tricks; they are privy to the same social insights that could be giving them inside information about you. Your competition can also notice who you are connecting to, which could tip them off about new business in the offing. That's one of a few downsides of social media transparency. But that's a column for another day.