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September 11, 2013

How I Came in Second to Bill Gates: The Brilliance of the LinkedIn Influencer Program

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linkedin-influencersThis article originally appeared on LinkedIn Today. It has been slightly modified and republished below.

Imagine you have something important to say. (That shouldn't be too hard – we all have something important to say.) You write an article. You post it.

Within 48 hours your post has received over 1 million page views -- and from that one article, over 500K people decide to follow you so they can read subsequent posts.

Sound like a fantasy? It’s not a fantasy if you’re Bill Gates, you wrote this post, and you’re a LinkedIn Influencer.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s well and good -- but he’s Bill Gates. What’s that got to do with normal people?” Well, it's not just Bill Gates that has succeeded with the platform. David Kerpen, and entrepreneur and author, has the most popular article on LinkedIn -- "11 Simple Concepts to Become a Better Leader" -- which has been viewed 1.8 million times and "liked" by 21,000 people.

There are over 300 influencers that are writing as part of LinkedIn Influencers. Many of whom you may not know -- but should. It's not just about billionaire entrepreneurs (though the program has its share of those, too).

More on some of the other influencers later in the article; first some background.

Original Content Is Important …

In early 2011, LinkedIn launched the social news platform LinkedIn Today. It began as a content aggregator that collected news and articles shared by its members. Users could customize their experience to pull in the most shared articles from professionals in their network; sort by industry, company, location, etc.; share stories with their network; and comment on stories, hence the social aspect.

Simple, smart, convenient, engaging … yet in one key way also limited: LinkedIn Today aggregated content first generated by other sources. So in October 2012, LinkedIn launched the Influencer program, allowing selected “thought leaders” (their term) to share original content directly with LinkedIn users.

Suddenly users didn’t have to wait for, say, Richard Branson to talk to a journalist, for Jack Welch to appear on a panel, or for Arianna Huffington to do a TV interview. Branson could directly share his thoughts on why you should treat your company like a family. Welch could describe the six deadly sins of leadership. Huffington might tell us why “Millennials are America’s Most Stressed Generation.”

And by “following” Influencers (you can follow an Influencer without being connected to them), users can read, like, comment directly, and share Influencer content with their networks, all of which further extends the social nature of LinkedIn Today.

… And It Pays Off

In less than a year the Influencer program has become an incredibly powerful platform. There are now over 300 Influencers including people like HP CEO Meg Whitman, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, journalist Maria Shriver, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban … the list goes on and on.

The average Influencer post receives almost 30K views. (Some receive over a million views, with the top post receiving almost two million views.) The audience is extremely diverse: 22% of Influencer followers are entry-level professionals while 49% are director-level and above.

That diversity of readers is a direct result of the diversity of the Influencers. The average business/career media site has an editorial slant: Entrepreneur.com and Inc.com provide great news and information for small business owners and startups; career advice for young professionals, not so much. TechCrunch provides info on new internet products and breaking tech news; broader social issues, not so much.

That is in no way a criticism of any media outlet that narrows its focus to a specific audience. In most cases, trying to be all things to all people is one of the surest paths to failure. But the customizable nature of LinkedIn Today -- due to the ability of users to follow selected Influencers as well as to focus on specific topics, industries, etc. -- means that LinkedIn Today can be (almost) all things to all people, because every person gets to decide “what” his or her LinkedIn Today delivers.

When asked what the biggest surprise was with the LinkedIn Influencers platform, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said, "The biggest surprise for me continues to be the sheer volume of engagement, e.g. top posts routinely receiving views in the six figures, combined with the quality and quantity of responses."

But the users aren’t the only people who benefit.

A View From the Inside

I was asked to be an Influencer during the holiday season last year (December 2012.) To be honest I felt some mild hesitation. Between helping to grow HubSpot (my #1 priority) and posting to my own startup blog, OnStartups.com, I wasn’t sure I had the time. But I had seen the kinds of people that were already writing for the program and I thought it was at least worth a try.

I quickly came to appreciate why LinkedIn Influencers is so special.

First of all, there’s the sheer power and reach of the platform. When I write on my personal blog, which is reasonably popular, an article will get roughly 5,000-10,000 views. If it turns out to be popular and is widely shared on social media, that number can spike to 50,000+ views. That’s pretty good. It makes my day when it happens.

But let’s compare that to how my content performs on the LinkedIn platform. I’ve posted 30 articles as an Influencer. The average number of views across those articles? 123,000!

The most popular article I’ve written has received 1.2 million views and 4,200 comments (whew!). That’s heady stuff.

And it’s also fun. I enjoy the opportunity to write about a broader range of topics. Obviously I write about issues that are important to startups, but I also get to write about building a company you love, and personal branding, and even extremely broad themes like the qualities of truly confident people.

Remarkable Content Levels the Playing Field

The LinkedIn Influencer Program also showcases the power of remarkable content, allowing mere mortals like me to be in the same company as President Obama, Martha Stewart, and Jack Welch. While some commenters have noted that celebrity-authored content on LinkedIn is too promotional, I personally like any medium that provides entrepreneurs, storytellers, and leaders of the free world with the exact same platform and publishing tools and lets them succeed or fail based on the merits of their content. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the so-called "big names" would quickly run the rest of us out of business or traffic, and that has not been the case. 

In fact, IDEO CEO Tim Brown's post on the secret to success outperformed Martha Stewart's post on Recipes for Success. Similar topics and the exact same publishing channel, and yet a business leader's insight outperformed a well-known television and media star. That's nothing against Martha -- it's simply an illustration that remarkable content wins the day over just name recognition: what's not to love about that? 

Leading Is More Fun With Followers

Since being part of the platform I’ve managed to gain about 93,000 followers -- and that’s in about 9 months. This ranks me as the 61st most followed influencer on LinkedIn. Not bad … but what’s interesting is how quickly this happened, compared to platforms like Twitter. I have about 205,000 followers on Twitter now, but that’s happened over the course of many years.

Of course, it’s not all about follower numbers -- that’s not what really matters. What matters is the degree to which you can engage those followers. Do they read what you share? Do they comment and interact?

One of the simplest metrics I use for measuring engagement is the number of “clickthroughs” I get when I post a status update to my LinkedIn followers. I compare those clicks to what I get on other platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Here’s an inside secret: Although I have almost 3 times as many followers on Twitter, I get 2 to 3 times more clicks on LinkedIn.

Here’s an example:

Notice that my share to LinkedIn got 485 clicks, versus 155 for Twitter.

Here's another example. Similar idea. The social media update was posted at the same time. Twitter garnered 162 clicks. Facebook (where I have 128,000 fans) had 337 clicks. LinkedIn, 604 clicks. So, the LinkedIn CTR (clickthrough rate) 0.7%. For Facebook, its 0.2% and for Twitter it's only 0.08%.

These are not isolated examples. I’ve checked a dozen or so shares, and the data is directionally similar each time. LinkedIn has the highest clickthrough rate.

Directly engaging readers just got easier, too. Starting yesterday, Influencers and all members can reply directly to comments and mention another member; when another member likes a comment or mentions you in a comment, you receive a notification so you can continue the conversation.

Says influencer Bruce Kasanoff, "The Comments section of Influencer articles has turned out to be the most literate and civil business discussion anywhere online."

It’s Win-Win For Thought Leaders and LinkedIn

As an entrepreneur and blogger I’m impressed by the power of the platform. The numbers are staggering, which is likely why they have been able to attract the quality of Influencers on the platform.

But, here’s the interesting thing: The Influencer program is a brilliant strategic move for LinkedIn. It’s one of the smartest inbound marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen thousands): Now LinkedIn has people like me willingly spending time to write and publish content on their platform for their members.

In the short time I’ve been on the platform I’ve generated 3.7 million views for their site, and I’m not even the highest traffic-generating writer (I’m #6). The top three writers have together generated 18.8 million views. And that’s in less than a year!

Do you think all that traffic and engagement is a good thing for LinkedIn? Of course it is. LinkedIn is all about its members, and those members are coming back to the site much more often now as a result of all the great original content.

Publish and They Shall Read

But I don’t just write for the Influencer program. I’m also a user (reader). LinkedIn Influencers has helped me find super-useful content both from people I know -- and from people that I would like to know.

For example, I’m a huge fan of Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn. I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Jeff last year during a visit to Silicon Valley. He is super impressive. But, there’s only so much wisdom and insight you can squeeze out of a person in an hour.

Now, as a LinkedIn Influencer, Jeff has been writing regularly. It’s like I get to peek inside his head and learn how he really thinks about leadership and culture -- topics that are top of mind for me. One of my favorite articles (I have many) is his post on compassionate management that includes this quote: “My wife is the bedrock of our home and has built the foundation upon which my work exists.”

(Here, here!)

And beyond just reading articles by people I already know, the program has helped me discover new authors I was not aware of. One is Dr. Marla Gottschalk, the industrial and organizational psychologist whose posts on workplace issues and dynamics have influenced my thinking on company culture. Another is Charles Best, a leading thinker on the intersection of education and philanthropy.

Plus the ability for users to like and share Influencer content lets me quickly find out what the people in my network -- the people I respect -- are reading and reacting to, helping me discover new perspectives and new ideas that inform my professional life.

What If You Aren’t an Influencer?

I wouldn’t be surprised if LinkedIn eventually extends the Influencer program to every user, allowing all users to directly post their own content and build their own followings. (That’s just my guess, though.)

In the meantime, how can non-influencers make the most of the platform?

1) Find Influencers to follow.

One way is to browse the list of all Influencers. (You can sort by “most followed” or alphabetically.) Another is to check out Influencer posts; you can sort by top posts of the dayweek, or all time.

Or check out the posts your connections are sharing or commenting on; if you like a post, check out the author’s recent posts to see if you’re interested in following them. (All you have to do is hit the “Follow” button, and of course you can “Unfollow” at any time.)

2) Subscribe to channels.

LinkedIn Today also sorts posts by topic. Channels include Technology, Career, Leadership & Management, Healthcare, etc. Subscribing to a channel (all you have to do is click the “Follow” button) helps customize the posts that appear each time you go to LinkedIn Today.

3) Engage with Influencers.

The number of comments my posts receive sometimes astounds me. Many posts generate hundreds of comments, and a few have generated thousands. While I definitely appreciate complimentary feedback, what I most enjoy are the different perspectives and points of view readers provide. Often, the comments are better than the original article.

Great articles are not one-way lectures. Great articles start a great conversation, not end it. The new threaded comment feature lets users start a conversation and debate with others who read a post -- as well as the author of that post.

Think of it as a way to create short-term, ad hoc LinkedIn Groups on a very specific topic, without having to find or join a Group.

Yep: Brilliant

In less than two years LinkedIn Today became an incredibly powerful news aggregator. Landing an article on a category page generated a flood of traffic. Landing an article on the home page could crash your servers. Now, with original content from Influencers, LinkedIn’s reach just got bigger and broader.

Still, (and here’s a lesson we can all learn from) in the midst of the explosion in page views and growth of readership, LinkedIn has created a personal experience for each user by making the content -- and the social aspects of the site -- customizable to the needs of the individual user.

Tell me that isn’t brilliant.

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Topics: Social Media

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