When Microsoft announced it was acquiring LinkedIn for $26 billion last December, the tech world responded with a collective “Huh?”
Why did the enterprise software giant want LinkedIn so badly, and why was it willing to pay so much? Did Microsoft have a secret plan to turn the social network for business professionals, which lost $166 million in 2015, into a moneymaker? Or did it want to embed LinkedIn’s user data into its Dynamics 365 CRM platform and other Office software?
Nine months after Microsoft closed the deal, many of those questions remain unanswered. LinkedIn has only just begun to be integrated into Microsoft products; the LinkedIn business unit continues to cost more than it brings in.
In the meantime, though, something unexpected has been happening. LinkedIn has become more than just a place to park one’s digital resume; it has established itself as an essential destination for marketers looking to reach an executive audience.
Over the last two years, LinkedIn has pumped up its publishing platform, tamped down the spam, streamlined its mobile and desktop apps, and introduced new lead-generation and targeting tools. In August, the network unveiled a posse of third-party partners to help marketers create and manage campaigns. At press time, the company had begun to roll out the ability to host native video directly on the site.
It’s not exactly a head-to-toe makeover, perhaps, but not the same old LinkedIn, either. Less buttoned-down and more accessible, it’s become a real social network for real business people—a strategy shift that’s paying off for many publishers and brands.
The polite social network
Not surprisingly, LinkedIn dominates business-to-business digital marketing, says Will McInnes, chief marketing officer for Brandwatch.
“LinkedIn is the Facebook for b-to-b marketers,” says McInnes. “If you are an Apple, a Cisco or an IBM, LinkedIn is a great place to market your products.”
And while it’s not in the same league as Facebook for consumer marketing, LinkedIn is increasingly part of the conversation among top brands, he adds. One reason is the sheer volume of data the social network collects. LinkedIn’s half a billion users share a lot of information—not merely their digital CVs, but endorsements, recommendations, blog posts, comments, likes, shares and follows.
“More than most social networks, LinkedIn has very robust and deep user data,” says Jessie Liu, senior analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s collecting your location, educational history, professional history and interests. That makes it far more valuable than, say, Twitter.”
But LinkedIn has another big advantage over other, more social networks. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, it’s not besotted with fake profiles, fake news and angry invective. As a result, it’s become a kind of refuge for real people who want to discuss ideas, not hurl insults or swap memes.
“People are more careful about what they say on LinkedIn, because it’s essentially their default resume,” says M. Scott Havens, global head of digital for Bloomberg Media. “We see a much cleaner conversation that’s supportive, positive and actually useful.”
Authenticity and polite discourse are two reasons why business periodicals have embraced LinkedIn as a publishing platform. Since the beginning of this year, Bloomberg’s LinkedIn follower count has doubled to roughly 1.5 million, says Havens, while user engagement is literally off the charts.
“If you look at comments or unique impressions of our content, the growth is exponential,” he says. “We were doing half a million impressions a month before, and now it’s like 5 or 6 million.”
Similarly, over the last seven months, Forbes has seen a 137 percent increase in clickthroughs from LinkedIn and an 81 percent increase in followers, notes Shauna Gleason, Forbes Media’s director of social media.
Some of those gains are due to publications being more selective with the content they post. For example, Forbes’ LinkedIn articles are more career and business oriented and less political than its posts on Facebook or Twitter, says Gleason. LinkedIn has even begun to influence the kinds of stories these sites publish.
“We’ve started to pitch editors in the newsroom with ideas we think would work well for LinkedIn, like leadership and career content,” Gleason says. “We’re really taking a social-first approach to the way we tailor content to our platform.”
Less spam, more content
Many of these improvements can be traced to changes LinkedIn began making well before the Microsoft acquisition. Two years ago, the network decided to abandon “shallow growth tactics,” which led to aggressive email and endorsement campaigns, in favor of boosting its value to members, says LinkedIn’s global head of product, Ryan Roslansky.
Today, he says, LinkedIn sends nearly 70 percent less email than it did two years ago, and endorsement requests are less frequent and more relevant. Instead, the network tries to entice users to engage more frequently with the original content on their newsfeeds.
“It used to be very difficult to have any kind of social conversations on LinkedIn,” Roslansky admits. “It was a very disjointed experience, compared to how commenting worked on other social platforms. We had to get a lot of that right.”
An early part of that effort was beefing up the network’s publishing platform, starting with its LinkedIn Influencer program. Launched in October 2012 with 100 handpicked thought leaders like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, Influencer was opened up to all LinkedIn members in February 2014. They now produce more than 100,000 new articles a week, and members share nearly 1,000 posts every minute.
Jeff Selingo, a New York Times best-selling author who writes about higher education, was one of LinkedIn’s original Influencers. Now, almost five years later, he’s attracted nearly 420,000 followers on the network.
“When they reached out and asked if I was interested in becoming an Influencer, I was pretty skeptical,” Selingo says. “I didn’t think many people went to LinkedIn for content. But after a couple of pieces, we started to get huge amounts of traffic—like over 100,000 pageviews.”
Like every other LinkedIn Influencer, Selingo doesn’t get a dime for his work. But he says he uses it to test out ideas and survey readers.
“And, to be perfectly blunt, it’s helped me sell books,” he adds.
Instead of only displaying posts by people within one’s network, LinkedIn tweaked its recommendation algorithms to share content based on members’ interests. It’s also begun to use “sessions”—clocking each time members use LinkedIn more than 30 minutes after their last activity—as a key metric of user engagement. Over the last nine months, the number of sessions has increased by more than 20 percent each quarter, says LinkedIn’s Roslansky. That makes it a much more attractive venue for advertisers, he adds.
“When we see an uptick in engagement, it becomes very enviable for advertisers to play in that mix as well,” he explains. “Our core feed product is our fastest-growing product on LinkedIn, and the sponsored updates that we allow advertisers to place is our fastest-growing business.”
Along the way, LinkedIn also enhanced its advertising and sales tools. Advertisers can install code on their sites that lets them create richer user profiles and track conversions from LinkedIn, such as event sign-ups and white paper downloads. Marketing pros can create more precisely targeted LinkedIn campaigns, and users can now auto-fill lead generation forms with a single click.
“LinkedIn is really supporting its advertisers more than it has in the past,” says James Carroll, senior digital media specialist for Tableau, a business intelligence and analytics company. “Eighteen to 24 months ago, LinkedIn had a handful of products but not a lot of innovation. Over the last year, they’ve added a lot of new products and become much more competitive.”
Still, some brands see room for improvement.
Alison Herzog, director of global social business and digital strategy for Dell, says that while LinkedIn’s recent changes are all welcome, they’re less about innovation and more about playing catch-up to competitors.
“We’ve been asking for a lot of these changes for a long time,” Herzog says.
She adds that LinkedIn still needs to do a better job of sharing its analytics data with big brands.
“When you’re competing with the likes of Facebook, where it’s less expensive and you have access to much more refined targeting and better numbers, it’s hard to justify the cost, even when it’s the right audience,” Herzog says. “Maybe we’ve just gotten spoiled with Facebook. But when you’re a big brand and you’re spending a lot of money, you expect more.”
Jenny Sussin, research vp for Gartner, agrees that holding data so close to the vest may be limiting LinkedIn’s usefulness, given its status as the world’s broadest and deepest professional network.
“Unlike other social networks and a lot of other sites and software, LinkedIn’s fairly closed off from a data perspective,” Sussin says. “Its APIs don’t allow people or companies to export the data from LinkedIn into a third-party system. The data that’s trapped in there could be used for human resources, sales, marketing, you name it.”
Roslansky argues that sharing data with third parties runs the risk of alienating its users.
“Members give us a lot of data about who they are and what they know,” he says. “And if the data is out there freely, available to anyone, I’m concerned we’ll lose members’ trust in what we’re doing with it.”
LinkedIn will never match Facebook for volume, Twitter for notoriety, YouTube for eyeballs, and Instagram or Snapchat for fun. But for brands like Tableau, in a social media marketplace where brand safety concerns and fraud issues run rampant on social platforms, it’s all about quality. LinkedIn’s rich trove of professional data allows Tableau to zero in on the precise audiences it wants to reach.
“If we want to go after executives, we can target that,” says Carroll. “If we want to target analysts, we can do that in a very accurate way. That lets us trim the fat of wasted impressions or wasted clicks.”
And there are more changes to come. In July, LinkedIn unveiled a dedicated Windows 10 app, as well as integration between its Sales Navigator tool and Dynamic 365 system. Integration with other Microsoft products is on the way.
“You can imagine a world where you’re in Outlook, you mouse over a person’s name, and you see their LinkedIn profile and all the people you know in common,” Roslansky says.
In the meantime, the social network with half a billion professionals is happy to keep doing what it’s best at—connecting talent to opportunities at scale—far from the turmoil and the trolls.