I make a living helping B2B companies put social media to use as a legitimate marketing channel. For that reason – and because I’m passionate about results-oriented marketing – I look at a heck of a lot of LinkedIn efforts and constantly experiment to find new and better ways to use the network. Over time I’ve noticed there are three distinct phases companies tend to pass through (and sometimes get stuck in) as they learn to take advantage of what LinkedIn has to offer.

Here’s a quick look at those phases and what each one means to you.

Phase One: Dabbling

You’re a Phase One LinkedIn participant if you have a personal profile and a company page, but you don’t know what else to do so you’re trying a bunch of stuff. Since you’re reading this article I’m willing to bet you’ve made it at least this far.

This is a defensive phase, characterized by a feeling of “we have to be there, but I’m not exactly sure why”. You can compare this phase to exhibiting in a trade show just because everyone else is there. The problem is if you’re not prepared to work hard to attract the right prospects and to follow up after the show, you’re wasting time (and, in the case of a trade show, lots of money).

If you’re in this phase, don’t feel bad. So are a lot of other companies. In fact, you’ve probably been there for a while. Over the past 4 or 5 years there’s been no lack of social media “experts” telling everyone they must jump in, but frighteningly little direction for B2B companies on how to make it pay. It’s kind of like the early 1990s when we were all convinced we had to have a website, so we paid to have one built and then didn’t know what to do with it.

If you’re in Phase One, it’s time to move on!

Phase Two: Focused

Once a company commits to getting organized about a LinkedIn effort, most start by posting regular updates to personal profiles and company pages. In Phase Two, individuals begin to make comments in some groups and maybe even try to start a few discussions of their own. If they’re really good, Phase Two companies rally all their employees to bring their networks into this effort.

Jason Miller, Content Marketing Manager at LinkedIn, refers to these activities as “brand maintenance”. You’re getting out there; probably increasing your visibility; possibly making a valuable connection or two. But what’s the point?

Companies in this phase often get wrapped up in vanity metrics that don’t do them much good. You’re guilty of this if you’re obsessing over number of connections and followers with no attention to relevance. There’s danger in thinking you’re actually accomplishing something great and getting stuck here. LinkedIn is full of B2B companies doing just that.

Want LinkedIn to contribute to your profits and revenue? Move on to the next phase.

Phase Three: Strategic

This is where LinkedIn really begins to shine – when the budget owner insists on quantifying results and the focus shifts to lead generation, business and channel development, and real thought leadership. This is where you find your ROI.

In Phase Three you start using LinkedIn effectively to influence prospects and decision makers, to create a strong thought leadership position, and – yes! – to generate leads. You begin to treat LinkedIn like any other marketing channel. You take the time to set objectives, identify your audiences, develop and implement a plan to reach them, engage them and turn them into buyers.

This is where the most forward thinking B2B companies are operating now. It’s what Barbara Alba at Technology Sales Resource refers to as a “quiet movement among B2B marketers who are discovering the huge potential that LinkedIn offers for generating leads and tangible ROI”.

So which phase are you in and how’s it working for you?

Start your move into Phase Three by clicking here to access our free report to discover 12 mistakes most tech companies are making on LinkedIn and how to avoid them.