How to Generate B2B Leads on LinkedIn: Think Referrals First

by | LinkedIn Strategy

Most salespeople struggle with using LinkedIn. When I say “struggle,” I’m not referring to their ability to put up a profile picture or to like someone’s comment. 

I’m talking about their ability to use it for generating B2B leads. 

Why? Because there are two big reasons why salespeople struggle to use LinkedIn to generate new business:

  1. Cold outreach is ineffective on LinkedIn  
  2. Most salespeople aren’t content creators   

In this post, we’ll dig into these sources of struggle a bit deeper, and then we’ll show you the strategy that lines up beautifully with the skill set of a typical salesperson: referral generation

Also, there is a special bonus piece of insight regarding lead generation toward the end of this post.  But you have to read through the post first for it to really make sense!

Let’s get started!

Source of struggle #1: Cold outreach is ineffective on LinkedIn 

If your strategy is cold outreach, then your formula is simple. You get as many leads as you can, and you contact them through cold outreach, such as unsolicited phone calls or emails.

With that premise, LinkedIn should be a paradise for cold outreach. The online business platform has:

  • Over a billion users worldwide
  • Individual and company profiles that contain enormous amounts of intel
  • A tool called Sales Navigator to help you improve your sales on the platform  

Yet with all that goldmine material, LinkedIn is very, very hard to use as a cold outreach tool (believe me, I’ve tried many times). Here’s why:

The 95-5 rule 

LinkedIn research found that “95% of your potential buyers aren’t ready to buy today.” This is considered the 95-5 rule.  

That means if you want to reach the 5%, you’ve got to send out a ton of unsolicited messages to your entire list. You can’t just send to one part of it, because you don’t know which prospects on the list are in the 5% segment. 

Graphic courtesy of LinkedIn

This will be costly if you want to go the messaging route on LinkedIn. The platform won’t allow you to send a message to someone you aren’t connected with, but you can send an InMail, which costs money. So you’re going to need to purchase a ton of InMails. 

And they’re not cheap, especially for bulk outreach. A Professional account holder gets 60 InMail credits, and an Enterprise user can have up to 150 credits. You can purchase more InMail credits, but they’re $10 a pop.  

You’d think your InMails would get special treatment at those rates, but unfortunately…  

LinkedIn basically considers unsolicited InMails to be spam  

LinkedIn takes a step to basically ensure you’re dead in the water. Messages from people you know wind up in “Focused.” Unsolicited InMails end up in the “Other” Messaging category.

Focused and Other
So now what do you do? 

How about the tactic of cold invites — in which you reach out to someone and introduce yourself?

This tactic is so often abused that these days most people automatically decline invites from people they don’t know. That’s what I do. 

Even worse, if you do accept an invite from these folks, they will immediately try to sell you their product, even with little knowledge of who they are or what you need. 

This is called being “pitch slapped,” and people hate it. 

You’re kicking yourself out at the first touchpoint 

Here’s the real disservice you’re doing to yourself: Consider you need an average of eight touchpoints (voicemails, emails, live conversations) to make a sale. (HubSpot

Well guess what? If your first outreach is ignored, as I’ve shown you above, you’ve basically taken yourself out of the running at the earliest possible time — touchpoint #1. Nice job. 

And I can’t believe this reflects favorably on your company and its brand as a whole. Does your company really want to be known for its annoying salespeople who bombard people with unsolicited messages?  

Source of struggle #2: Salespeople aren’t content creators 

One of the best ways to generate leads on LinkedIn is to share unique, insightful content that establishes you as an expert. 

That’s going to be a tall order for the majority of salespeople, because they’re not great content creators. 

Here’s why: Salespeople in general tend to be tremendous verbal communicators, and excel at interpersonal relationships. They have a high degree of emotional intelligence, and they can read social cues. 

But the thought of writing a post or making a video makes them cringe. They are not content creators.

There are unicorns out there, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen people like Jake Hall post incredible content and amass a huge following. But Jake is both a great salesperson and a natural marketer. (He also works his ass off.) 

Jake Hall Post
You could also take the example of Chris Luecke. A former sales rep with Rockwell Automation, Chris launched his own podcast. It has since become one of the most widely known and respected podcasts in the manufacturing industry. 
Chris Luecke
If you follow these guys and see the amount of content they produce, it’s truly amazing. 

And it’s also a very high bar for salespeople who don’t have the time, resources, or natural ability that these two unicorns possess.

Can’t you just share your company content? 

I’m all for it, don’t get me wrong. But the way that most salespeople share company content is unproductive.

Share your opinion

Just liking a company post or hitting the share button won’t get the job done. The LinkedIn algorithm favors original content, and shares won’t get served up to other users. 

If you’re going to share the content, at least include your own personal comments and share your opinion of why it’s important. That will show your expertise. If you just shove a piece of content in front of someone without explaining its value, your expertise won’t show through. 

Which finally leads us to a strategy that is more aligned with the skill set of a salesperson.

The LinkedIn referral generation approach

There is a way for salespeople to use the LinkedIn network in a way that both aligns with their innate skills (one-on-one relationships, adept at making new connections) but doesn’t require the things they don’t like to do (content creation).

But it requires a mindset shift: 

You have to stop thinking about LinkedIn as a tool for immediate leads, and start thinking about it as a tool to help you build referrals. 

Here are a few reasons why a referral growth strategy on LinkedIn is a smart idea:

It is a proven strategy — online and offline  

Most manufacturers were built on generating referrals. Heck, most B2B companies — including mine — were built on referrals. So why abandon that? 

It also lines up with any offline work you do at trade shows and conferences to expand your network and set up referral sources. 

It’s in alignment with the goal of LinkedIn  

As LinkedIn states on their website, “You can use LinkedIn to find the right job or internship, connect and strengthen professional relationships, and learn the skills you need to succeed in your career.”

The platform wants you to connect with others and build your relationships. What builds a relationship more than referrals?  

It’s something salespeople can commit to long term

Referral programs require relationship building and continuous 1:1 networking. These attributes are in the DNA of any salesperson. 

Building a referral network is a long-term commitment, just like any business initiative. A salesperson is far more likely to give up on something they don’t like to do in the first place than something that’s in their wheelhouse.

So how do we launch a referral-based program on LinkedIn? Here is a step-by-step program we follow:

Step 1: Comment on content
Leave comments that include INSIGHTS

Salespeople may not be content creators, but they can definitely do one thing: They can make comments. 

If you’re a salesperson, you have expertise and insights on your products, services, and industry. And no one knows customers better than you do. You work with them every day.  

You have a strong point of view. You have opinions. You have INSIGHTS. And that’s why people are on LinkedIn. They want to gain insights not only from the videos and articles they see on the platform but also from the people who are reacting to them. 

So join the crowd: Start leaving comments on other people’s posts. And don’t just leave a “great post” comment. Offer some insight. Show your own expertise. I usually go 2–3 lines with a comment and make sure I’m offering something new to the post. 

If you don’t have something new to offer, at the very least, address what you liked in the post. 
Address that you like the post
ACTION STEP: Every day, I spend at least half an hour on LinkedIn, commenting on other people’s content. And my comments aren’t just clicking the Like button, or leaving a statement like, “Great post!” I’ll build on what they’ve said, and add my own unique insights. 

But that’s just the first step. Now you’ve got the opportunity to start building that referral network. 

PRO TIP: You definitely want to be commenting where the action is, but you also want to leave comments on the posts of content producers. That does them a favor by driving engagement.  My favorite types of content to comment on:

  • Influencer posts
  • Posts publicizing podcasts
  • Polls
  • Posts sharing new trends
Trends post
I love commenting on trends. It’s a great place to share your expertise.

Step 2: Send warm invites
Ask fellow commenters to connect

You’ve left your comment and now you’re part of the conversation. You immediately have a warm intro to the other people who have left comments on the posts. So now you can reach out to them and make a connection. 

Read through other people’s comments after you’ve left your own, and look for potential referral sources. For example, we are a digital marketing agency that works with sales-driven manufacturing companies, so I’m always looking for sales leaders as potential referral sources. 

Identify your own referral sources, and look for their comments on LinkedIn. Comment on their comments. 

ACTION STEP: Go to their profile, and invite them to join your network. Include a note in your invite, including a reference to the post you just both commented on. Provide context so you are not some unsolicited invite. 

DO NOT just send an invite to connect from your phone. It does not give you the opportunity to leave a short message. 

Mobile view
PRO TIP: When you comment on posts from influencers in your industry, you’ll find a lot of potential referral sources (and yes, direct leads) on those posts. Then you can reach out to some of the other folks who have left comments because now you have something in common. 

Leaving comments on their posts is also a win for the influencer, as it gets them more engagement. Just be sure that your comments are adding value to the conversation.

Joe Sullivan

Joe Sullivan is a big-time industry influencer and produces exceptional content. He deserves engagement for his hard work.

Step 3: Meet and add value
Meet face-to-face and pay it forward

If your referral source has accepted the connection request, don’t stop there. Take it to the next level and set up a Zoom call or, even better, meet face-to-face. 

That meeting will be a great opportunity for you to learn more about one another’s businesses, but your goal isn’t to get a referral during your first get-together. It’s to provide your referral source with value. And there’s no better way to do this than by helping someone.

ACTION STEP: Every time I’m on a call with a potential referral source, I try to think of 3–4 ways to help them (I do this even with people not in my referral network to build goodwill). Here are some potential ideas:

  • Offer to introduce them to someone in your network
  • Provide them with a link to some helpful content
  • Share some of their content on LinkedIn
  • Post about them on LinkedIn and give them some exposure (my favorite)
You don’t need to add graphics like this, but you can provide value by just giving someone a shout-out.

There really is no limit to how you can help someone, so be creative. Be a go-giver (somebody who is always paying it forward), and they’ll want to return the favor. 

PRO TIP: You can add your referral sources to Sales Navigator, and set alerts for whenever they are posting on LinkedIn. Then you can jump in and leave comments on their posts to continue paying it forward.


Step 4: Ask for referrals
They can’t say yes if you don’t ask

This sounds so obvious, but you’re never going to get a referral if you don’t ask.  

After I’ve been a go-giver and helped out someone, I make sure to ask if they know anyone who might benefit from my services. I clearly identify the type of customer we help, and I also provide them with a link to our Approach and Pricing page.

This does two things:  

  1. It clearly defines what we do and who we’re looking to help. No matter how clearly you state what you do, people likely don’t truly understand it until you really take the time to explain it to them.
  2. The referral source might actually need your services as well. This is a no-pressure way to get them to learn more about what you do. 

You can’t forget this step. Most people don’t get referrals simply because they don’t ask. So build it into your process. 

Ask for referrals

Bonus Insight: The “referral” approach works with direct leads as well

We’ve given you a great approach on how to use the platform to generate referrals. But guess what?

You can use the same approach to directly generate business from prospects. Follow these steps, but nuance the approach slightly for direct sales prospects:

Step 1: Comment on content leave comment that includes insights
(Same process for prospects.)

Step 2: Send warm invitesask fellow commenters to connect
(Same process for prospects, but approach it more as in terms of collaboration. “Wondering if there’s ways we can collaborate.”)

Step 3: Meet and add valuemeet face-to-face and pay it forward
(Same process for prospects here as well. Find a way you can help them without going straight for the sale. Bring some value that is in line with what their business does first.)

Step 4: Ask for referrals solution presentationthey can’t say yes if you don’t ask
(Instead of asking for the referral, ask if you can walk through your solution. They’ll be far more likely to listen at this point.)

We share this because you can generate direct leads off LinkedIn, but people will likely be more guarded if they see you’re in sales and less likely to connect. This dilutes the impact of the value. 

Measuring all your efforts: Individual and company

All of this won’t work unless you’re tracking your efforts and the results. Let’s take a look at how to do this on an individual and company level.


Generating new sales requires activity, so be sure you track the three main activities.

Comments: Allow 30 minutes per day for in-depth comments.
Invites: Send 10–30 quality invites per week.
Meetings: I request at least 2 meetings per week. 

One way to balance this is to alternate commenting and invites on a daily basis. For example, make Monday your comment day, then Tuesday your invite day. Chunking this way prevents distraction. And LinkedIn is an easy place to get distracted. 


LinkedIn provides individual metrics on things like impressions and engagement. You can integrate those into the overall company metrics so you can set a summation of the combined efforts. 

Metrics approach
Winbound’s metrics approach allows us to integrate individual and company metrics.

Take it to the next level: Integrate with marketing

And if you really want to ramp up your approach, integrate your referral-based approach with your marketing team. Those mass communicators should be able to support you in multiple ways:

  • Marketing can co-create content for sales to post: Record video snippets of the salesperson sharing expertise, then write supporting messaging for the post. 
  • Marketing can run LinkedIn ads for the salesperson to drive awareness: This is a way to conquer the 95:5 rule as you can reach your entire audience. 
  • Marketing can share what’s working with sales: Let’s say you’re running ads on the different pain points of your customers. Marketing can inform sales of the pain points that are generating the highest response, which can optimize the sales team’s approach.  

This is true alignment and integration of sales and marketing, and it leverages both of your strengths. 

The ultimate reason to use referral-generation: Go straight to “Trust”

We always lean into the time-honored rule of sales: People will only do business with you if they know you, like you, and trust you. 

When you are given a referral, you bypass the hard work of getting people to know and like you and you move straight to trust. You’ll already have established a degree of trust because your name came from a trusted source.

When you use LinkedIn to generate referrals, you’re combining a classic method of business generation with the most effective business networking tool on the planet. Now it’s up to you to put it to work!

Improve Your Web Presence and Generate Quality Leads!

Greg Mischio

Greg Mischio

Greg Mischio has been creating content for many moons. He is the Founder and CEO of Winbound, a sales and marketing agency that provides content and marketing services with a focus on manufacturing and industrial verticals.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This