You’ve spent hours perfecting your LinkedIn profile. You’ve built a network of hundreds of LinkedIn connections over the years, and reaching that “500-plus connections” mark may or may not have made you almost as proud as the birth of your first child.

That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but most business owners understand how important LinkedIn is, and they invest a lot of time into building their network of connections because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Or is it?

Of course, a primary goal of social media is always to increase your followers, likes, connections, etc. The higher the number, the more likely it is that you will be viewed as the expert in your field that you are.

But why focus on connecting with yet another person on LinkedIn if you aren’t optimizing the connections you already have?

According to Google, “connections” are “people with whom one has social or professional contact or to whom one is related, especially those with influence and able to offer one help.”

The important words there are: “contact,” “influence” and “help.”

Based on those words, here are three important ways you can — and should — be growing your business through your LinkedIn connections. Don’t waste time sending another connection request until you do these three things.

Contact

Review each of your existing LinkedIn connections. Whom have you not contacted in the past six months — or at all? Consider sending that person a message asking him or her to lunch and to discuss how your relationship with each other could be of mutual benefit. If it’s a good fit, plan to stay in contact with that person at least quarterly for the next year.

Influence

Remember Joe Schmo from college? He might have influence now that you wouldn’t have expected then, and he might let you use that influence. Here’s how to find out.

Use the LinkedIn Advanced Search function to search for your target market of prospects. Are you a financial adviser hoping to target doctors? Search “doctor,” and then, in the left sidebar, narrow down the location to your targeted geographical area.

In that left sidebar, under “Relationship,” select “2nd.” This will show you the people with whom you and your prospect have a connection in common. In the case of the doctor, look under the doctor’s name. Directly beneath his or her location in gray, you’ll see “# shared connection(s)” in green. Click that, and you’ll see the first connections you have in common — here’s where you might find Joe Schmo and/or some of your other first connections.

Send a message to one of those first connections that says something along the lines of: “I noticed you’re connected to (name of second connection). I was going to reach out to him/her; do you mind if I mention your name?” If the person responds in the affirmative, you now have the opportunity to use the power of that person’s influence in your outreach to the prospect.

Send a short message to the second connection. Reference your mutual first connection; briefly introduce yourself and mention why you might be a good connection for him or her; and invite the person to lunch. Note: If you will be sending a lot of these messages, consider a LinkedIn Premium account so that you have more “InMails” to use.

While you’ll likely get only a small percentage of responses, the prospects you do meet with could become clients for life — all thanks to the influence of Joe Schmo.

Help

Your LinkedIn connections need help spreading the word about their businesses, just as you do about yours. Take the time to share some of their posts on your LinkedIn profile; it’s as simple as a couple of clicks.

Down the road, when you need to get the word out about a new product or want to invite people to an event, those connections whose posts you diligently shared will remember you. Ask for their help in sharing your post, and because you helped them, they just might be willing to do so. Now, you’ve not only maximized your own LinkedIn connections, but their connections as well.

Emily Crider is a social media & project manager at IMPACT Marketing and Public Relations in Columbia. She can be reached at 410-312-0081 or ecrider@impactmarketing.net.