In 2011, LinkedIn's 150 million members conducted more than 4 billion professional searches. The network boasts executive profiles from all Fortune 500 companies, and adds new members at a rate of more than 2 per second. What's more, if you've ever faced an executive gatekeeper, social networks like LinkedIn bypass them directly, since connection requests and direct messages go right to the member. Clearly, LinkedIn is a platform that cannot be ignored.

To get the most out of LinkedIn, optimize the following key sections of your profile:

Basic Information

Your basic information includes your name, photograph, location, industry, and most importantly, your professional headline. This section shows at the top of your profile page. The headline is your first chance to make an impression, in under 140 characters. You have an opportunity to include more than just your "official" title -- so carefully craft a headline with keywords that are important to your industry.

For example, your headline could read "Helping homeowners in the tri-county region market their home online," instead of "real estate salesperson." Big difference.

Summary And Specialties

After Basic Information are the Summary and Specialties sections. The Summary is like an expanded personal biography, so again, use keywords and keyphrases that would help me get to know your background better. Below this section are your Specialties, another area to list your keywords and keyphrases.

Job Titles And Descriptions

Moving down the profile are your Job Titles and Descriptions. Consider listing all positions you've had -- you never know how a connection could be made. Include relevant keywords and keyphrases for each.

Add Connections

We're doing all this profile prework so we have the most complete information possible when networking with other professionals.

To find new connections, use the advanced search function, in the top right hand section, and search by job titles, companies and geographic locations. You can also search for groups to join.

LinkedIn also gives you an option to import your email contacts, which will send everyone a default connection request. However, if you send them individually, and customize your message, you'll get a better response (and more connections). So find common ground, such as a shared company or group, or as alumni of a school or college.

Don't forget to your 1st level connections for their connections. With LinkedIn, you truly are only a step or two away from connecting with potential clients, recruiters, and the link. But always ask for an introduction!

Finally, update your status message often -- daily if possible. Remember, LinkedIn regularly sends out network summary emails with activity (yet another chance to pick up more connections).

If you follow these simple LinkedIn optimization steps, you'll be well on your way to fruitful connections, new clients and more influence over your personal brand.

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