If you sell to garden centers — or landscapers, schools, or virtually any other B-to-B category — LinkedIn can be a great resource for reaching qualified prospects. In theory, there are just two steps to the process: 1) expand your network, and 2) keep in touch with your contacts. In practice, how to do so befuddles a lot of people. Here are some suggestions.
Expand Your Network. Before you start expanding your network, make sure you’ve built a strong personal profile. Company LinkedIn pages can also be useful, but participation in LinkedIn Groups — one of the best prospecting sources — requires a personal profile. Be sure that your personal profile highlights your company’s benefits.
LinkedIn profiles often appear for Google searches, so make your profile search-friendly by using a keyword-rich description below your name. For instance, mine reads, “Marketing expert specializing in gardening, outdoor living and horticulture industries.”
After your profile is ship-shape, you can grow your network several different ways:
Connect with people you know. The obvious first step is to connect with industry colleagues you already know. Not only does this provide you with an easy way to stay in touch with them (more on that below), but it also builds a base for networking with their connections. Look for potential contacts by clicking on the “People you may know” section in the right column of your LinkedIn home page. And if we’re not already connected, I invite you to connect with me!
Look for 2nd degree connections. People who connect with you on LinkedIn are called 1st degree connections. Their connections are 2nd degree connections of yours — and many of them are likely to be excellent prospects.
There are several ways to identify them. One approach is to think of the best networkers you know among your 1st degree connections, and check out their contacts. Another option is to upgrade to a Premium LinkedIn account and use the Lead Builder feature, which lets you search connections by industry and/or keyword.
Once you’ve found potential prospects, you can either ask your mutual connection for an introduction, or you can contact them offline by phone or snail mail. LinkedIn limits your ability to communicate with 2nd degree connections who you don’t know.
Join relevant interest groups. Another way to find qualified prospects is to join appropriate LinkedIn Groups. Type keywords specific to your market in the search box to see what’s available. Some of the groups that you might consider include the Perennial Plant Association; Seed Industry; Garden Centers, Nurseries and New Media; Landscape Architects; and Horticulture.
When you join a group, you can see who the other members are. What’s more, you’re able to contact them directly even if they’re not a 1st degree connection.
Keep in Touch. Once you’ve grown your network of LinkedIn prospects, there are several ways to stay in touch with them:
Status updates. Status updates are distributed to your LinkedIn contacts by way of their news feed, giving you an easy way to stay in front of them. Keep updates brief, and share useful industry information or company news. Links to newsletters, articles, websites, blog posts, and videos can all serve as good material for status updates.
Group discussions. One of the best ways to engage with new prospects is through LinkedIn groups. When a group member posts about an issue that you or your company can help with, chime in. Start your own discussion by posting questions, industry news, or a special offer for group members. Helpful posts encourage members to learn more about you and your company, building relationships and increased business over time.
Send messages directly. Are you heading to a trade show and want to set up appointments with prospects? It’s easy to send a message to your new LinkedIn contacts before the show.
There are a couple ways of doing this. One option is to hit the “send message” button next to a contact’s name within LinkedIn. In this case, the email “from” line will indicate that the message is from a LinkedIn contact, making it more likely that people who don’t recognize your email address will open the email. Another option is to download your LinkedIn contacts, which will include email addresses for most of them.
Build Relationships. Throughout every step of the process, it’s important to remember that LinkedIn is about building relationships, not about selling. Hard sell messages in status updates and group posts won’t work. Instead, provide a steady stream of helpful news and advice to build your online reputation, and the relationships and business will follow.