The new year began on a high note for LinkedIn, as the professional social network reached 200 million monthly users for the first time in its history. This is also good news for B2B companies trying to reach prospects online. New features – like the ability to publish interactive content – may spark a behavioral shift among LinkedIn users, bringing them closer to brands that they may want to do business with.

In fact, LinkedIn is encouraging users to join relevant groups on the platform, which business owners can create on behalf of their brands, and engage with like-minded peers. The company’s first step toward this gain comes with the retirement of LinkedIn Answers. The feature, which allowed users to pose questions to their networks and receive targeted answers, will disappear on January 31, 2013. In an email to members, LinkedIn wrote, as relayed by MarketingLand:

“…we evaluated hour our current products and features are being used. To ensure we focus on building the best products, we’ll be retiring LinkedIn Answers on January 31 and it’ll be removed from our site. Instead, we’re focusing our efforts on developing new and more engaging ways to share and discuss professional topics across LinkedIn. We look forward to sharing the details with you in the coming months, so please stay tuned.”

LinkedIn GroupsThe email suggests that due to the emergence and effectiveness of LinkedIn Groups, the Answers feature saw engagement rates decline significantly over the past year. More, the Groups section features its own Q&A, as users interact and present insights based on specific subjects. Questions published in LinkedIn Groups may have seen greater response rates.

Brands that developed social media marketing strategies for LinkedIn Answers shouldn’t worry. The same efforts can be directed toward LinkedIn Groups, and social media content can drive referral traffic back to corporate sites. In fact, copy may be more effective in reaching appropriate audiences when published to unique Groups, and businesses might find it easier to identify potential leads when active in industry-relevant discussions occurring via LinkedIn’s own forums. Moving forward, LinkedIn will unveil new features to help professionals interact with one another online, and these same functions will assist brands in strengthening rapport with new and existing customers. LinkedIn’s future looks bright, and for now professionals must sit back and wait to see what the network has in store for its members.