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Don't be the weakest link on LinkedIn

Are you on LinkedIn (LNKD)? Probably so. Is it helping you sell? Probably not. Never have so many connected with so much and landed so few new customers. Although everybody in the business-to-business world seems to be on the professional networking service, only a rare few have a strategy that gets results.

 And whose fault is that? Not LinkedIn's. Last time I checked, the potential was staggering. More than 150 million members from over 200 countries. New members are signing up at a rate of two per second. And the demographics are great -- the average LinkedIn user is 46 years old and earns more than $88,000 annually.

When it comes to optimizing your use of LinkedIn as a sales tool, there are two different and opposing camps. First you need to decide which camp you belong in.

Camp 1: Link with as many contacts as possible. This is the "more the merrier" approach. For these people, the larger the network, the better. This approach values quantity over quality, with little regard for whether they know the person they are linking with. These hearty souls might have thousands of contacts in their network.

Camp 2: Only link with people who you know, like, and trust. These are the quality-over-quantity thinkers, who are selective when building their network. When they link with somebody, it means something. These are the "small is beautiful" crowd, with a few hundred or less contacts.

There is no right or wrong way. As an author and someone who does a lot of public speaking, I'm in the first camp, with some 7,000 LinkedIn contacts. My goal is to make myself accessible. By contrast, I have a client who jealously guards his LinkedIn network. You have to pass muster to join his elite team. He wants everyone in his network to know that they have his personal endorsement.

Whichever camp you choose, there are several ways to make sure you are not the weakest link in your LinkedIn chain of contacts:

Fill out your profile. Don't try to get away with a bare-bones profile. Make sure to fully fill out your profile. Being the kind of person who does things half way is not a good signal to send out to sales prospects. Do enter as much information as possible. Do put in keywords that relate to what you sell under "Specialties." Do add your photo, because it makes referral sources and prospects feel more connected to you.

Update your status line. This is your chance to broadcast serious business news -- about you. But don't treat LinkedIn like Facebook (FB) or Twitter and post trivial status updates.

Get recommendations. No profile is complete without some good recommendations. One savvy LinkedIn user once told me, "How can I trust someone if they can't get three people to say good things about them on LinkedIn?"

Prove you know them. When you are inviting someone to link with you, take the time to explain how you are connected.

Research prospects. I assume you have a target filter for the kinds of companies you want to sell to. From that filter I assume you have some companies you are actively researching. LinkedIn is perfect for this. The best thing about the company information on LinkedIn is that it comes straight from members, not from corporate spokespeople.

Overall, understand that LinkedIn is a community where karma counts. Your mantra should be, "I give before I get." Answer questions for others. Respond to requests that you receive. Give recommendations to those you have done good business with. Relationships lead to sales, and you can enhance relationships quickly and easily when you interact in a digital business marketplace like LinkedIn.

By Tom Searcy

Originally published on MoneyWatch June 7, 2012 9:41 AM