LinkedIn Is Looking More Like a Publisher as It Grows Its Native Ad Business

Now acting as a content broker, too

LinkedIn is looking more and more like a publisher these days.

The professional networking site eschews the term, but its recent moves suggest otherwise, from its Influencers blog network to its acquisition of news reader Pulse and the introduction of native advertising. (LinkedIn calls them Sponsored Updates—the ad units where companies pay to have their news show up in users’ feeds.)

Now, LinkedIn is going even further in that direction by acting as a content broker between brands and publishers. Meaning, if a marketer is in need of content to distribute to readers, LinkedIn’s team of “content marketing consultants” can link it up with a roster of partner publishers.

In the first such arrangement, LinkedIn worked with tech company Emerson to distribute stories from The Atlantic with the aim of reaching professional women. Articles were distributed to LinkedIn members who follow Emerson, as well as nonfollowers. Clicking on a story took the reader to an articles page on surrounded by Emerson ads, potentially introducing the magazine to new readers. “It’s elevating the power of The Atlantic to facilitate a conversation … for an audience that might not have discovered it on The Atlantic on their own,” said Atlantic publisher Hayley Romer.

LinkedIn members are increasingly accessing the platform on mobile devices, so the site is looking to Sponsored Updates to drive revenue on those devices, said Jon Williams, head of global agency relations. Marketing Solutions (read: ad revenue) made up 25 percent of LinkedIn’s revenue in 4Q 2013, of which Sponsored Updates contributed 13 percent. But, Williams added, “We’re seeing a lot of marketers struggle with coming up with content and figuring out what resonates with the right users.”

Rebecca Lieb, analyst at Altimeter, said distributing more content is part of LinkedIn’s effort to increase its relevancy beyond HR professionals by getting people to expand their use of the site and think of it as a b-to-b social media destination. Hence, its frequent email updates to users and the introduction of Facebook-like commenting features.

“LinkedIn realized for some time it has to be relevant outside the HR community to make money,” Lieb explained. “Increasingly, it’s becoming a marketplace for thought leadership, marketing products and the marketing of companies as great places to work.”

NewsCred CEO Shafqat Islam said that in a test, half of users who clicked on NewsCred content via Sponsored Updates agreed to provide their email addresses for the promise of a white paper—testimony to user engagement on LinkedIn.

For now, LinkedIn is working with a small list of traditional publishers (so far, just The Atlantic) and automated platforms/writer networks including NewsCred, Contently and Percolate, with an eye to adding more.

Producing content itself may seem like a natural next step, but Williams insists that’s not in the cards. “We’re a technology company,” he said. “We’re focused on creating a great member experience on our platform. We don’t intend on creating content ourselves.”