By now you know that we can all benefit from networking online with experienced business professionals, just as we can offline. LinkedIn is one of the best places to do this, and it currently has over 53 million members [Update: January 2011–over 90 million] in over 200 countries—and grows at a rate of one new member every second.

Your visibility on LinkedIn is determined by your connections. For those of us in business, it’s to our benefit to be connected to more people rather than less. Fortunately, once you take a few minutes to search LinkedIn, you’re bound to find lots of contacts from your current and prior companies or employers, clients, vendors, and schools. All of those contacts have the potential to help you grow your business or connect you to potential clients or customers.

LinkedIn is known for having a large number of groups, many of which are very active. Groups are great for connecting with people who share similar expertise, educational backgrounds, interests, professions and more—so you will want to think about the types of people you want to connect with when deciding which terms to search on.

For example, when I type “massage therapy” into the Groups search box, it returns 113 results in order of number of group members. Some of the groups returned include “Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP),” “American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)” and “Massage Instructors” to name a few.

LinkedIn limits your membership to 50 groups and generally, the more you join the better, but keep in mind that you only really benefit if you actively use them on a regular basis.

So what can you do to get the most out of Groups? Your best bet is to use Groups to:

*Start and engage in discussions
*Submit news items
*Demonstrate your expertise (the discussions you participate in show up on the other group members’ home pages)
*Research people in your field

You can also create your own group by clicking on “Create a Group” from the Groups drop-down menu in the top menu bar. Once you do so, you can then send invitations to your LinkedIn connections, invite people via email or pre-approve people who will automatically become confirmed members when they request (or accept an invitation) to join your group.

You can start and view discussions, add news articles, manage your group (including requests to join and sending an announcement to all of the members) and more. Here are some ways you can take advantage of your own group:

*Create a group to attract members of your target market. For example, I might create a group entitled “Social Media Help for Small Business Owners;” a virtual assistant might create one called “Virtual Assistance Resources for Entrepreneurs.”
*Perform research about what your market wants and needs help with by regularly asking them questions (for example, “what is currently your biggest challenge in your business when it comes to X?”)
*Send an announcement letting members know about any events you have coming up with a link to the sign-up page
*Encourage members to connect with you on other social media sites, visit your blog or website and sign up for your newsletter list

One of the best things about LinkedIn is that it is a very “target-rich” environment. What this means is that most of the people there have disclosed what they do, where they work now, where they’ve worked in the past and what types of connections and opportunities they are looking for. I encourage my clients to have a presence there in order to take advantage of being connected to this vast professional network, and to use Groups to help find new connections, boost their visibility and drive traffic back to their site.

Do you use LinkedIn?  What questions do you have about it?  If you’d like to connect there, you can find my profile here.

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