Poised For Mobile Revenue Growth, LinkedIn Looks To Sharpen Ad Targeting

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While the media and tech press watch Facebook and Twitter minutely for their respective ad strategies to emerge in a more defined way, professional social network LinkedIn has been slowly growing its ad business through its Marketing Solutions unit. As the company pointed out in a research note released Friday, 72 percent of LinkedIn's revenues come from its subscription and Hiring Solutions, the latter making up 53 percent of its businesses.

Having two other significant revenue streams allows LinkedIn to set a lower volume course for its ad efforts compared to other social networks. A second advantage is that its 175 million users use the social network for specific business purposes, making a contextual targeting approach the primary way the company hopes to drive revenues. Still, Macquarie Securities' analyst Tom White highlights some pitfalls for LinkedIn's ad strategy in comparison to Facebook and Twitter. For one thing, engagement and time spent could be a challenge for marketers, since LinkedIn users don't check their feeds as often as they do on other social platforms.

Nevertheless, Jonathan Lister, a former top Google Canada and AOL executive currently serving as LinkedIn's VP North America Sales, Marketing Solutions, tells AdExchanger that more mobile activity will ultimately boost engagement and in turn, make its method of ad targeting more valuable. So far, the stats are moving in the right direction, as the company claims that Marketing Solutions' current revenue is $63M, a 64 percent gain since last year, while it saw an average of 106 million unique visitors and 9.3 billion page views monthly in Q2.

AdExchanger: How has the marketing solutions group evolved over the past year, in terms of the amount of ad activity?

JONATHAN LISTER: The business has evolved tremendously over the past six months. We are more focused on creating products that leverage LinkedIn’s position as a professional network with 175 million members worldwide. That professional context distinguishes us from our peers, and our size separates us from any other business-oriented social network. We also have the unique ability to precisely target the most affluent, influential, and educated member base than any other social network in the world.

From a practical advertising standpoint, our members have twice the buying power of the average consumer, and the professional context directly implies trust and receptivity. According to a recent Hootsuite study, in a b-to-b context, which is where we excel, we delivered four times the conversions of other social network sites.

What accounts for that? Is it just the focus on members’ work and industries?

We’ve long understood the importance of context. Individuals approach things differently on a professional and social networks.  Purpose and mindset vary on each platform.

A recent LinkedIn and TNS survey of 6,000 global respondents revealed that emotion plays a significant role in both social and professional social networking. That’s not something that’s often considered important when you’re talking about marketing to professionals. Usually, the thinking is to aim for a message that stresses something functional and directly applies to someone’s business. While the idea of using emotion is crucial for marketing on LinkedIn, it’s very different from marketing to mindset on personal networks, which works best when trying to appeal to users’ sense of entertainment or nostalgia.

On professional networks, the emotional touchpoints are achievement, security and progress – things that show someone focused on their future advancement, such as finances and retirement. If you can tap into that kind of emotion, marketers can find real insights which lead to opportunities.

The type of content seen on personal and professional networks varies dramatically. On personal networks, people want content structured around instant gratification. Professional networks are where people are thinking deeply about their own brand and identity. So, in terms of content, they want to see things that also relate to the idea of branded information that helps them learn and grow.

How can marketer make those differences work for them? And is LinkedIn’s main appeal to b-to-b marketers?

If marketers segment their audiences among professionals, appropriately tailor their messages, and match it with the right emotional mindset, they’ll be able to make the right connections.

We talk to a lot of marketers who want to target decision makers, but we also speak to ones who are generally looking for affluent consumers, so it’s not just b-to-b. Sometimes our users are doing something on LinkedIn on behalf of their company, but sometimes it’s something more personal, like someone who wants to figure out how best to save for their children’s college funds.

You noted the depth of data LinkedIn possesses from its 175 million members. How do you use and manage that data? And are privacy matters for LinkedIn less of an issue when compared to personal networks like Facebook?

Data is a critical part of how we run the business day-to-day.  We set a very high bar for privacy because it all comes back to the member experience. We only use publically available information posted on our site, and we don’t allow any targeting based on personally identifiable data.  Our goal is to make the platform rich and credible.  At the end of the day, we want people to feel like they can come to us be better at the jobs.

If you look at LinkedIn Today, which delivers tailored news to users based on their industries and stated interests, it now has a million publishers who have elected to use the LinkedIn “share” button to have readers amplify their content further. We can glean a great deal of insight by the way our members interact on LinkedIn Today and present appropriate content accordingly.

How do the ad products that you offer reflect that targeted content?

It helps us know what sorts of things to present to our audience. As I said earlier, our users mindset is aspirational and forward thinking. What doesn’t resonate well are things related to instant gratification – coupons, deals, leads, etc.  Our members are looking for insights. The types of advertising that works best are messages that support that mindset.

We also have our Follower Ecosystem, a product that allows brands to attract key audiences. Once companies have followers, they can send very targeted communication as often as they want. That’s the definition of one-to-one marketing that produces a high interaction rate and builds a relationship at scale in a way that isn’t really possible on any other platform.

Aside from tools like LinkedIn Today, does audience buying play any role in helping LinkedIn marketers reach the right users?

We’re not an audience-buying platform, but we’ve always talked to our advertisers about audience segmentation. And we don’t talk about “audience proxies.” These are real people and the messages have to reflect that in order for the advertising to work.

How has mobile opened advertising opportunities on LinkedIn?

We’ve definitely seen a shift to mobile. Approximately 23 percent of our traffic comes from mobile devices, versus 10 percent a year ago. We see a very different use case on the iPhone and the iPad, and we’ve designed different products to reflect those differences.

The use case for mobile is often related to someone about to walk into a meeting with a group of people for the first time, and they want to quickly see their background and the latest updates on the related industry. The use of the iPad, in contrast, is one we call the  “coffee and couch” experience.  We see a spike in the morning when our members are planning their day over coffee, and the see another spike in the evening hours when they are winding down and reviewing their day. Insights like this help us create unique opportunities for our customers.

Also, LinkedIn members who are iPad users are twice as likely to be the senior decision-makers in their industry versus other platforms. This is a compelling experience for advertising.

What other ad products are you focused on?

We recently created a product called Managed Groups where we moderate and curate topics that are high passion points for members. A recent example of this is the work we’ve done with Citibank. They found that professional women were a voice that was largely underserved when it came to career information. We partnered with them to create a forum for women to discuss career issues. It now has 60,000 members in six months, and it's one of our fastest-growing groups on our platform. That’s important to Citibank from an advertising standpoint, because it’s not just about the ability to closely target 60,000 people with their message, but it’s real power is in those 60,000 who are connected to the other five million people online.  This opens up a lot of audience insights for Citibank.

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