In a $26.2 billion deal, Microsoft acquired LinkedIn at the close of 2016. The price tag indicates the high level of investor confidence in the platform’s value and the potential to monetize its 500 million registered user base. Already, LinkedIn rolled out a makeover to its desktop version in the first quarter of 2017, greatly improving the look and feel of the platform. New advanced search features and an added “My Network” area are welcome improvements as well.

In the future, we can expect deeper integrations with Microsoft products, including Outlook, Windows, Office, Skype and Sharepoint, making the social network all the more vital to our professional lives.

Since the digital revolution began, social media sites have come and gone. (Remember SixDegrees.com, Friendster or MySpace?) While these platforms eventually ended up in the social media graveyard, LinkedIn’s resilience and adaptability has allowed it to emerge as the business networking site. Now, after struggling with a less-than-user-friendly interface that frustrated users for over a decade, LinkedIn has finally grown up and stands as the preeminent social network for professionals.

While many legal professionals have joined LinkedIn, few use it to its maximum benefit. In this article, I’ll provide some tips that will help lawyers transform LinkedIn into the powerful business networking tool it was built to be.

LinkedIn for Social Selling

Knowing that LinkedIn isn’t on the doorstep of the social media graveyard and your efforts will not be wasted, let’s review why LinkedIn needs to be part of your business development toolkit.

Attorneys have most commonly brought in business through networking with other professionals, classmates, friends, acquaintances and clients. Often this is a time-consuming and potentially expensive undertaking. With the emergence of social media, networking has suddenly become highly focused, less time intensive and more accessible to wider audiences. This digital version of networking provides a platform to research, prospect and network with potential clients while allowing attorneys to share knowledge and demonstrate expertise to prospects who may not currently be at the hiring stage but will be some time in the future.

A 2014 IDC study showed that 85 percent of C-suite and vice president-level executives are using social media when making purchasing decisions. Using LinkedIn, these B2B buyers take into consideration peer input, review profile information and research knowledge-sharing activity when assessing potential counsel.

LinkedIn for Business Development

While most attorneys have optimized their profiles – and some have mastered sharing updates –  LinkedIn offers even more power in its potential for driving business development. LinkedIn’s basic account offers limited features but will work for prospecting on a small scale. For those looking to scale up their business development efforts, upgrading to LinkedIn Premium Sales Navigator is highly recommended.

Both small-scale and large-scale business development efforts follow the same process of lead generating and lead nurturing:

1. Prospecting

Define the common characteristics of your ideal client, including geographic location, industry, companies, job titles, experience level, age, skills and anything else that helps identify your target market.

Find high-potential prospects. With the criteria that identifies your target market, use the advanced search tool to develop a pool of prospects. If needed, narrow your search using keywords, or limit your list to only secondary connections. Keep in mind that executives who have changed jobs recently are more likely to make changes and do business with new people. LinkedIn Premium Sales version offers deeper insights and additional filtering capabilities, but the basic account functionality should provide a good number of relevant prospects.

Increase your visibility. View profiles for your high potential prospects with your privacy settings at “Visible.” While in visible viewing mode, you can expect about a 10 percent view-back rate. (If your settings are “View in Private Mode,” prospects will not be able to view your profile back.) These “view-backs” will move to the next level of your prospecting process.

Build your prospect database. Starting with the people who have viewed your profile, begin creating a list of potential prospects. A simple spreadsheet can serve as your database if you don’t have a CRM system or other third-party software to manage leads. If you are building your prospect database at a large scale, upgrading to LinkedIn Premium Sales Navigator is a must. It will help to uncover everyone who has looked at your profile and with follow-through.

2. Connecting

Send connection requests to your list of people who have viewed your profile,. LinkedIn allows several ways to connect. You can send InMail with Premium accounts, reach out to members of a LinkedIn Group or send a custom message with a connection request. The latter will give you the most flexibility and the appearance that your request stems from a personal effort.

Note that your custom message can be copied directly to all of your outreach requests, with one or two customizations for industry and location. The following is an example of a permission-based method that conveys commonalities you share with the other person.

“Thanks for visiting my LinkedIn profile. I’m expanding my network in the [area of law relevant to prospect] space here in [prospect’s location or city]. Would you be open to connecting on LinkedIn?”

By identifying specifics about the person and your common industry interests, you are more likely to have your connection requests accepted.

Finally, monitor responses from your new connections, and respond accordingly in a timely manner. Again, a spreadsheet may be all you need to keep track of your prospects. Larger outreach efforts may require a more robust CRM solution to track higher numbers of prospects.

3. Engaging

As your list of prospects grows through prospecting and connecting, share and publish relevant content on your profile. The content you share should be a mix of original and curated content such as:

  • Articles and blogs you have authored
  • News pages and client alerts published on your firm’s website
  • Pieces authored by colleagues and peers
  • Industry news and articles relevant to your area of law

By providing your connections with relevant, high-quality content, you will naturally build trust and demonstrate expertise. While many of your connections may not be ready to hire an attorney at the time, they may be in the future. When they reach that point, you will be top of mind.

The “Notifications” tab also provides opportunities to engage with your connections. Congratulate people on a new job or work anniversary, comment on a shared update, like a post, or wish someone a happy birthday. These engagement tactics only take seconds yet contribute to your overall visibility on LinkedIn.

While this is almost a topic in and of itself, from a business development perspective, joining relevant groups and listening and responding to questions will help position you as a topic authority. Be careful not to take a pushy or self-promotional approach in groups. Nobody wants a used-car salesman pitch interjecting into conversations.

Pace Yourself

While this three-step process may seem daunting at first, you can begin with just a few prospects until you get the hang of it. As you scale up and your connection count grows, there are automation tools that can save time and effort. LinkedIn also publishes a number of helpful articles related to B2B marketing that are excellent resources for the enterprising attorney.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of ALM's Marketing the Law Firm.