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Posted on September 17, 2014 by Julie Short

When it comes to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, most of us revert back to being like grade school children – first we seek out people we know, and then let things branch out naturally to make new friends and contacts. When it comes to LinkedIn, however, things can be a little tougher. 

For one thing, the site has a professional focus, which makes it feel more like a professional networking event than a cocktail party. And for another, the stakes can be higher. Although a lot of CEOs, executives, and other VIPs don't have time to use other social sites, most of them are on LinkedIn and involved in company or industry-related discussions.

So, how do you find and approach new prospects on LinkedIn? Here are a handful of steps to help you get started:

Begin with the familiar. As with most parts of social media, and your business life in general, it's a good idea to begin by thinking about who you already know that's on LinkedIn, and who they might know in return. In other words, see if you have contacts who can make introductions on your behalf.

Be visible in the right places. Your LinkedIn profile is important, but industry-related discussion groups can be your greatest sources of information. That's because you won't just be able to see who is posting and getting involved, but also what kinds of topics are on their minds.

Ask, listen, and learn. The more you ask questions and pay attention to others, the easier it will be to grow your network. Try not to dominate every discussion, or give endless sales pitches at every opportunity – others on LinkedIn will tune you out, or ban you from their groups altogether.

Introduce yourself carefully. When the time is right (which means you know who you want to approach, what company they are with, and how you can help them), try to add them to your connections and send a simple, benefit-centered note. Explain why you want to add them, and then what you hope to do for them or their company.

Take the next logical step. This could be a phone call, an online presentation, a face-to-face meeting, or something else altogether. The point is to take the relationship beyond LinkedIn if possible, so you can turn the contact into a genuine sales opportunity.

Networking and finding new prospects through LinkedIn isn't an instant process, but it's one that can be very important to you as a salesperson, executive, or business owner. Learn to make smart connections through the site and you just might be able to open accounts and create relationships that you wouldn't have been able to build anywhere else.

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