LinkedIn: Connecting with brand content

This CV depository has evolved into a publishing platform for content marketers

Here’s an updated look at a story that first appeared in the July 28 issue of Marketing

This CV depository has evolved into a publishing platform for content marketers

Millions of people are going to the LinkedIn site continuously and it’s not to update their work history. To some, the site may still seem like a CV depository, a place to go during a job hunt for networking that is more business than social. But LinkedIn is aggressively working to change that perception and transform itself into a publisher that will rival both Facebook’s news feed and the traditional trade press. A place for career-minded people to consume and share content about their industry or profession. And, most importantly, a place for advertisers to spend their budgets connecting with those highly engaged professional members.

One hundred and nine million people globally visited LinkedIn each month last year. By the end of 2012, the social network had registered 37 billion pageviews. Traffic continued to balloon in the first quarter of 2013, jumping to 170 million unique visits per month.

Instead of a warehouse of stacked resumés, LinkedIn is now a personalized trade publication, delivered daily to members with stories tailored to their industry and position. And as successful as it’s been in growing its clout in recent months, the company has even grander ambitions. In the words of CEO Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s aim is to be “the definitive professional publishing platform.”
It’s this pivot, LinkedIn says, that drove a huge jump in traffic last year. Members are returning to the site more often to read whitepapers and articles and view videos and slideshows created by industry experts, comment on industry news in discussion groups and read stories from media outlets and posts by influencers like Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Barack Obama.

The company is betting big this content will carry each line of its business on the upward trajectory they’re currently on. LinkedIn’s revenue is split into three pieces of business (see box below): Talent Solutions (a hub for recruiters and HR professionals), Premium Subscriptions and the ad silo, Marketing Solutions. All three increased by more than 50% in the first quarter of this year. In fact, since its 2011 IPO, LinkedIn’s revenue has grown every single quarter. But to continue to please the stock market—which has accorded it a rich, almost frothy valuation by many measures—it will have to maintain that growth and find new, deeper forms of revenue.

Content is now key to the company’s bottom line, says Ryan Rolansky, head of content products at LinkedIn. Rolansky, who spent two years setting LinkedIn’s ad strategy as head of ad products before taking his current role, says content is improving all three lines of its business.

For starters, it’s attracting dollars earmarked for the distribution of content marketing in the business-to-business space and the technology and financial sectors, accounting for a significant portion of the $74.8 million LinkedIn made in ad dollars in the first quarter of 2013.

Gary Fearnall

Content is also helping drive time spent and return visits by members, increasing LinkedIn’s opportunities to market higher level subscriptions and beefing up the value proposition of active, career-oriented members the network makes to recruiters.

As LinkedIn’s director of marketing solutions in Canada, Gary Fearnall helps brands connect to LinkedIn’s coveted high-income, highly educated users.

His pitch to advertisers is that members are drawn to the site by a desire to be better at their jobs. Content from brands can help fulfull that appetite. “It’s an opportunity to have a much deeper relationship with members,” he says. “The deeper opportunity is thinking about why people are on LinkedIn and what they can expect to get out of that relationship they have with the platform—that mindset of saying, ‘I want to be better at what I do.’”

Since LinkedIn unveiled its new content-oriented homepage last July—its first major redesign since 2003—the company has regularly rolled out new, more social features paired with new ad units designed to complement its ambitions as a publisher.

With “at” mentions, Klout-style endorsements and a long-form blogging tool, LinkedIn now functions as a professionally minded Facebook/Wordpress hybrid, creating a more social experience.
In October, it debuted an influencer program, a feature that lets consumers “follow” business leaders who share content on the site (see sidebar, pg. 24). This spring, the company paid $90 million to acquire Pulse, a mobile app that organizes blogs, magazines and social media into a visual stream, the second major acquisition aimed at beefing up its content capabilities (in May 2012 it acquired SlideShare for $119 million).

Sponsored Updates are coming soon, too, further inviting comparisons between the new LinkedIn ad model and other social titans like Twitter and Facebook. The company is currently beta testing the ad unit with more than 20 big brands, including Shell and American Express, and plans to release it to all advertisers later this year. Like Facebook, LinkedIn is selling the chance to share content with users in a social way, styling its ad units to match user updates so they don’t look out of place.

Update: On July 23 LinkedIn announced the official launch/roll-out of Sponsored Updates. The ad unit is now available to any advertisers with a LinkedIn account rep and will soon be available to any brand with a LinkedIn company page.

By putting brands directly on members’ homepage feeds, LinkedIn is offering prime paid space within the content environment it’s built, a move it’s hoping will send its marketing revenue through the roof.

For marketers paying top dollar for branded content, LinkedIn’s new content-minded strategic overhaul couldn’t come at a better time. Instead of trying to drive traffic to content on their own sites or paying traditional media publishers for the extensive real estate needed to publish branded content, brands can now publish directly to LinkedIn and use its targeted ad units to make sure their whitepapers and blog posts end up in the hands of the correct professionals.

“In the old days, you’d always have a video or whitepaper on your website and would drive traffic towards it,” explains Armin Huska, digital managing director at Mindshare. “Now it’s totally different. You drive to that content piece that sits within LinkedIn. It gives far more scale and far more reach, in a targeted way.”

Compared to running content in a traditional publication, like The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, Huska says LinkedIn can provide reach without any wastage, a pain point for clients in industries like oil and gas or business-to-business technology that look to target a very specific niche. Huska says his clients, including HSBC and Cisco, now turn to traditional publishers only when they need a partner to help them create the content.

For brands with well-developed content strategies, or those in the technology or financial sectors, LinkedIn represents the largest—and often only—distribution method. As a general rule, Huska says brands spend 20% of their budgets on content creation and 80% on distribution, meaning LinkedIn is poised to capture a huge slice of content dollars.

“It’s far more targeted and more efficient for us. We see greater response and it’s easier lead generation, giving very expensive content far more exposure,” he says.

Hubspot, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company that sells inbound marketing software, has been advertising on LinkedIn since shortly after it was founded in 2006. Kipp Bodnar, Hubspot’s director of marketing, says traffic from LinkedIn converts to leads and customers at a higher rate than other social networks, and that no other media company can match its mix of targeting and reach in the content space.

Bodnar sees LinkedIn’s acquisition of Slideshare last year as its first big step into the content world. By offering slideshows as ad units, Bodnar says B2B brands with complicated product offerings like Hubspot are able to show off their product in a way that’s both detailed and visual.

“It will help solidify LinkedIn’s growing interest in becoming a leader in content,” Bodnar says of the acquisition. “They’ve got Slideshare and the influencers [program]. They’re clearly becoming more and more invested in content.”

At the Cannes International Festival of Creativity in France this year, LinkedIn rented a house and invited agencies and marketers to meet over drinks with its senior executives, part of its ongoing campaign to pitch itself to advertisers as the go-to network for content marketing. Weiner also spoke about creativity and content at an official panel and took one-on-one meetings with the network’s most valued clients.

The company will host similar events during Ad Week in New York this fall, and conducted a Canadian roadshow this spring, meeting marketers, recruiters and HR professionals at events in Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. At these events, Fearnall pitched the company’s vision for content and array of new ad products to crowds, which were lured in by cocktails and the promise of learning how to better engage with LinkedIn users.

To prove itself as a publisher and solution for content marketers, though, LinkedIn will have to deliver results, not just a flashy pitch. Customers like Hubspot and Mindshare rave about LinkedIn’s high conversion rates and granular targeting, but also admit that for the type of content they’re promoting, there are, at least for now, few other mass distribution options.

Even before its content transformation, LinkedIn played in a field of its own. Marketers turn to LinkedIn for different reasons than Twitter or Facebook, two companies that may be perceived as its chief competition. As Fearnall explains, LinkedIn focuses on the business-to-business, technology and finance sectors, while those media players offer mass audiences for retailers and packaged goods companies.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn’s pitch to advertisers focuses on its ability to target niche, career-minded consumers by their income and industry. Even the marketing speak is different. Brands on other social networks try to be fun and playful, while brands on LinkedIn aim to be pragmatic and useful.

Direct challengers are even fewer and further in between. Germany’s Xing, a European LinkedIn clone launched in 2003, is home to just seven million professionals. The size of the French professional network Viadeo, launched in 2004, similarly pales in comparison to LinkedIn’s member base of 225 million. In the U.S., the Wall Street Journal is planning a professional network, but mock-ups shown to investors in New York this spring and later posted online appeared to show no discernable difference that would give it a hand up on LinkedIn.

The biggest challenge for LinkedIn doesn’t come from a direct competitor, but a potential change in ad land tides. The company’s content push follows the same trajectory as content marketing itself, which exploded in growth in the past year. But the ad business is a fickle one and trends come and go quicker than one can say “Bitcoin” (or, for that matter, “MySpace”).

Rolansky says he’s not worried the company may build a content empire only to see the content business slump. LinkedIn as a publisher is as much about its members as it is its advertisers, he says.

“We’ve seen how much our members interact with content and we strongly believe that having access to the right information at the right time ultimately helps inform and inspire,” he says. “We feel we are only just getting warmed up and have much more planned ahead to bring the next generation of content consumption experiences.”

For more on LinkedIn’s growing influence, as well as coverage of the ever-changing world of social media, subscribe to Marketing. Check us out in print, on your iPad, or subscribe to our two daily e-newsletters.

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