It's who you know

Valued at $1 billion, LinkedIn is the online social network that gives its users access to business opportunities via 150 million fellow professionals.

Here, US social networking expert Neal Schaffer, author of Understanding, Leveraging and Maximizing LinkedIn, answers five questions to help you do just that.

1. How can I raise awareness of my company using LinkedIn?
The best way to raise immediate awareness of your company using LinkedIn is to have a proper presence on the site.

Every employee in an outward-facing role should have a LinkedIn profile that lists your company as his or her current employer. Although you can't force them to do it, having your employees add an SEO-optimised summary about your company will make your company more visible in search results.

On a similar note, by default, every company has a LinkedIn company page, but have you optimised it? You should make sure that all possible real estate is filled out and add a separate section for your products and services.

Don't stop with personal and corporate profiles. Create a LinkedIn group, thereby building a community amongst your target customers – all revolving around your company!

2. How much time do I have to spend on it in order to get results?
Social media is best done in-house or in tight collaboration with an outside agency. There is no shortcut to spending time on LinkedIn or any other social networking site.

Many executives do outsource this responsibility to their assistants. However, you can only tell them what you'd like them to do if you understand how it works, so it's best for you to gain experience before transferring your know-how.

I preach that everyone should have a defined daily LinkedIn routine. Some people I know of spend hours a day on LinkedIn because it helps them generate 75 per cent of their business, but it only takes 5 to 15 minutes a day to have an active presence. Start from there and see how effective you are.

3. How can I build relationships that will result in commercial success?
Think of LinkedIn as a virtual networking event. How would you approach different types of people offline? Do the same on LinkedIn. The beauty of the online version is that you can find and target your ideal client or partner before contacting them – something you can't do at a physical networking event!

4. Are there common mistakes that I should avoid?
The biggest mistake is signing up and waiting for things to happen. Go out there and engage! You can go to a networking event, be a flower on the wall, and end up not meeting anyone. Or you can go out and ‘work the room’. LinkedIn is the exactly same, so treat it like you would any networking event.

But remember, the old etiquette of social networking still applies, even though you are using new tools.

5. Is it worth paying for premium membership?
The two main things that paid LinkedIn accounts give you are more search results and the ability to send ‘InMails’.

For this reason, I believe that only recruiters, sales and business development professionals would find value in a paid account that saves time doing searches.

However, if you find yourself on LinkedIn for more than half an hour a day, and are seeing positive return on your investment, £20 or so a month is a small price to pay...

Neal Schaffer is a blogger, consultant and author of two social media books.

For more on using social media to help your business, see our Hot Topic.