Once a Running Joke, LinkedIn Is Suddenly a Hot Social Network. Here’s What Changed

Content marketers found their happy place

Over the past two years, LinkedIn has added new lead-generation and targeting tools. Getty Images

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.”

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.