LinkedIn Is Going to Start Serving Native Ads to Outlook Users’ Inboxes

Can an ad network work the second time around?

Mock-ups of what LinkedIn's ads look like on publishers' sites LinkedIn
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

One year into Microsoft’s $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn, the professional social networking site is starting to serve ads targeted at the inboxes of Microsoft Outlook users.

The move is part of LinkedIn’s new native ad network LinkedIn Audience Network that will place advertisers’ sponsored posts into ad inventory found in third-party publishers and apps. LinkedIn is working with a handful of ad-tech companies including Google’s DoubleClick ad exchange, Rubicon Project, MoPub, Sharethrough and Microsoft properties like MSN and Outlook.

Starting today, users may see an ad in their inboxes labeled as sponsored content from LinkedIn. Publishers that run ad inventory through the ad-tech companies like the MyFitnessPal mobile app will also begin displaying advertisers’ LinkedIn posts alongside content.

To compare, Google runs ads within its Gmail email accounts as text ads and recently said it planned to stop scanning users’ emails for ad targeting. While Google’s ads appear as text, LinkedIn’s promos include images, said Divye Raj Khilnani, group product manager at LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

“I think images are key for any native ad unit, so we make sure that we show the image alongside the ad type to give a much better sense on what the ad is about,” he said. In terms of targeting, LinkedIn advertisers will not be privy to additional targeting options outside of the criteria they use to set up their LinkedIn campaigns.

In some ways, sponsored content has come full circle for LinkedIn, and it’s not the first time LinkedIn has tried selling ads outside of its own properties. The site previously had an ad network in 2015 after acquiring marketing technology firm Bizo in 2014 that was later shut down in 2016 as the company started focusing more on selling sponsored content within its own properties.

“The focus of that offering was very different—it was focused on desktop publishers and our text ads unit,” Khilnani said. This time around, LinkedIn’s efforts are aimed at mobile and native ad units that typically include photos and graphics.

Now, of course, LinkedIn is acknowledging that those native advertising units aren’t getting the kind of traction within LinkedIn’s so-called walled garden that advertisers want. Khilnani acknowledged as much, saying the ad network will boost engagement.

“LinkedIn has more than 500 million professional users, and not all of them may come to the LinkedIn platform during the course of an advertiser’s campaign,” he said. “They really want to increase their footprint in terms of how many unique members they can reach.”

Specifically, LinkedIn is zeroing in on impression and reach stats by serving ads in third-party apps and sites. According to LinkedIn, more than 6,000 advertisers have tested Audience Network since a beta launch at the beginning of the year. Those tests have resulted in a 3 to 13 percent bump in impressions served and 80 percent increases in unique clicks.

“It also helps [advertisers] reach their budget delivery and impression goals that we have in mind more easily,” Khilnani said. “We are doing this in a very brand-safe manner. We are very cognizant of the quality of publishers that we are serving these ads on, and we want to make sure that the quality standards meet with the advertising standards of LinkedIn.”

At any rate, watching LinkedIn’s ad network take shape in the coming months will be intriguing as some b-to-b marketers have found recent success on the platform with new lead-generation and targeting tools.

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.