LinkedIn has changed a lot since its conception in 2002. From a site predominantly focused on recruitment, it has evolved radically – sharing articles, groups, publishing, advanced recruitment tools – the list of functions goes on. But perhaps no change has been quite so stark as the look, feel and functionality overhaul rolled out at the beginning of the year.

When Microsoft bought LinkedIn in December for an eye-watering $26 billion, changes were inevitable. But with any system overhaul comes problems and confusion. So what are the main improvements and problems? We caught up with LinkedIn coach, Greg Cooper, to get the lowdown.

Future Content: Hi Greg, we spoke to you a year or so ago about all things LinkedIn, and since then, it’s all changed. Shall we start there? What are the main changes people need to be aware of and why the changes?

Greg Cooper: The changes that LinkedIn introduced into the desktop were driven by three things. First, they wanted to create a more consistent user interface, so whether you are looking at an iPad, mobile or desktop you see the same thing. That’s a sensible idea. The second thing was to simplify everything and make it easier for users to get around the product. The third thing was to help people to become more confident in using it so they didn’t feel like they had to have a PhD in order to get the most from it.

The fact is, only about 25% of the LinkedIn population are active users. That’s 75% of their members who aren’t doing much at all. LinkedIn really need to drive that up, so the changes were aimed at the casual users rather than power users.

The feedback I used to get from clients was that they didn’t like the interface, they found it too busy – too complicated. I did a workshop the other day, there was a woman who had never used LinkedIn in her life. I was prepping myself for a barrage of questions; and there weren’t any. She got on with it fine.

Although anecdotal, that’s show’s the changes are having the right impact.

FC: It looks a little like the Facebook-ification of LinkedIn.

Greg: Yeah. LinkedIn’s big challenge is to get the millennials on board. They haven’t really cracked that one, but they’re getting there. These changes are a step towards that.

FC: So the casual users have benefited, what about the core power users?

Greg: Ah, well, when you simplify something, that means you take stuff away – in LinkedIn’s case, remove some of the functionality. And, actually, there’s been quite a big reaction from some of the more active users on LinkedIn because they’ve found they’ve lost features that they really valued.

FC: What kinds of features are we talking about?

Greg: A key one is the advanced search feature. It’s still available, but only for people on the ‘Sales Navigator’ and ‘Recruitment’ accounts, not the ‘Business Plus’ account. I’ve seen two forum posts about the loss of advanced search that between them have attracted around 6,000 comments from more active users, almost all of which were negative.

I think the LinkedIn team have been stung by the intensity and volume of the feedback, to be honest, so they have been listening and they have been making changes in response. There was a post by David Flink, the Product Manager for LinkedIn’s Search and Discovery, who wrote a very open article simply saying, ‘We didn’t get it quite right, we admit it, hands up, and we’re gonna make some changes.’

Within a few days they’d added some extra filters to the standard search element – they restored the safe search ability, which had previously gone, for instance. So, they are listening.

And search hasn’t disappeared entirely; it’s just changed. Even for free users it’s still a very powerful tool. For example the other day I was with a client launching a new product aimed at business studies teachers. They were able to use the standard free search to highlight 2,500 business studies teachers across the UK, which I thought they’d really struggle with. So, still a very powerful search.

FC: Just backing up slightly. You mentioned the premium ‘Sales Navigator’ and ‘Recruiter’ accounts. How do these work?

Greg: Both of these are key products for LinkedIn. About 60% of their revenue comes from recruitment solutions, and there are two main recruitment products: LinkedIn Recruiter Lite, which is the entry level product for in-house recruiters or recruitment agencies, that’s £95 a month. Then you have an ‘all bells and whistles’ version of that which is called LinkedIn Recruiter, which is around about £7,000 per seat. That’s a pretty expensive investment.

FC: And ‘Sales Navigator’?

Greg: This falls into the product and sales side and is, interestingly, completely unaffected by the recent redesign. It’s actually a different product from the main LinkedIn product but it bolts onto it. That’s £53 a month and as I mentioned, it has all of the advanced search features in there and, in total, gives you about twelve extra features over and above the standard product.

It’s really based around account-based marketing, so you can organise all of your target accounts either by company or by individual. The big thing about ‘Sales Navigator’ is that it’s uncluttered. All that appears in your feed is content from those prospects that you want to know about. It’s very, very focused.

Originally it was designed for corporate sales teams, but LinkedIn have gradually opened it up so that it’s available to everybody now. It’s not right for every company, and it’s another expense – several hundred pounds a year. But it’s a very good product, and you can get a one-month trial so it’s worth giving it a spin.

And on the horizon is ‘Profinder’.

FC: What’s that?

Greg: LinkedIn’s platform for freelancers, described as a ‘professional services market-place’. Clients select the service the category of service they are looking for, e.g. design or accounting, provide a brief and receive up to 5 free proposals from freelancers and qualified local professionals – within 24 hours.

It has been available in the States for about a year, but hasn’t made it here yet. Currently there is no release date for the UK but I would expect it will be soon enough. With all the chatter around the gig economy, I think it’s going to be very interesting when it hits these shores.

FC: One of the most striking changes, design-wise, at least, is the Homepage: what’s new there?

Greg: Again, it’s been stripped right back to make it cleaner and more intuitive, although initial user reaction has been pretty negative. LinkedIn removed user control over what was displayed, leaving it completely down to the algorithm which got a lot of bad press from users. But they’ve been listening and tweaking the feature.

“LinkedIn publisher has never really been about views. It’s about showcasing your professional expertise to your network”

So, they’re going to reintroduce the ‘most popular’ and ‘most recent’ sort on the homepage that filters content better. And they’ve finally introduced an option to turn off those really annoying birthday and anniversary posts, which personally drive me up the wall ’cos they completely fill your page feed.

FC: You’re not alone, Greg! It sounds like they’ve had a lot of teething issues. Would you say LinkedIn has damaged its reputation, or is it just as important as ever for business owners, marketers and brands?

Greg: I think the answer is that it’s just as important; more important than ever, actually. What I have noticed over the last 18 months or so is the broader range of businesses that are adopting the platform and realising they can use it for business development purposes. Looking just at some of my own clients, I’ve got a company that provides conveyor belts to the construction industry, another company that provides balustrades, I’ve got a world famous animation company, and an ethical bank – a real mixture of companies that are successfully using LinkedIn for branding and business development purposes .

In the last few weeks LinkedIn officially passed the half a billion user mark. If you look locally in Bristol, 290,000 people now list Bristol as their location as LinkedIn members. If you are a B2B business your target audience can be found on LinkedIn, guaranteed.

FC: The question is, then, how do you get the most out of the platform? Personal profiles were always the best route for engagement, as opposed to the company pages, which were always a bit of a struggle to get any purchase with. Is that still the case from your point of view?

Greg: Yeah, definitely. Company pages are like A Tale of Two Cities. If you’re a big corporate and you’ve got 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 followers on the company page then they’re an incredibly valuable asset. You can create a community of followers there and you can share content with them for next to no cost. It’s an incredible channel to market.

If you are a smaller business, it’s very hard work to create a following. I generally advise smaller and medium-sized businesses not to sweat too much about the company page. It’s important to have from a credibility point of view but it’s not where the opportunities are going to come from in the main. The real engagement is going to come from individual profile pages.

For businesses with several or more employees, leveraging their network is a great opportunity. Within any given business, the team’s network will be ten times the size of the marketing network, so it’s really important to engage the wider employee network.

FC: On the publishing side of things, is that still a high value activity? Compared to twelve months ago, it feels like engagement has dropped somewhat.

Greg: Yeah, there are something like 160,000 articles published every week now, and around 250 million users that have access to the publisher feature. For professional publishers like yourself it’s bad news because there’s huge competition now to get your article noticed by the LinkedIn editors or by LinkedIn Pulse, and to get the views that you used to.

But, personally, I don’t think that the publisher section has ever really been about views. It’s really about showcasing your professional expertise to your network, and who’s reading the article is more important than the number of people that are reading the article. It’s not to say that I would not be delighted if one of my articles got a huge number of views, but it’s not just about that.

Making the link: With half a billion users, LinkedIn is one of the most direct B2B marketing channels out there

One of my connections recently wrote an article on LinkedIn targeting just one person. He actually had 200 views on the article in total, but he sent the link to the person he wanted to read it, and achieved his objective. A few weeks earlier, the same person had written a post which had 10,000 views and won him a major new contract.

FC: It’s a very focused way of publishing, isn’t it? Aimed squarely at your network. Do they still have a real-life editing team?

Greg: Yeah, there’s a team of about twenty around the world. It’s a big job when you’ve got 160,000 articles a week.

FC: There used to be a way of poking them on Twitter didn’t there?

Greg: Yeah, but they’ve changed the handle to @LinkedInEditors. You know, with or without the editorial team, sometimes articles just take off. Another client of mine wrote quite a controversial article about Brexit, just before the referendum. He got 10,000 views on that article and 135 comments, and won a major new contract as a direct result, so it can still work.

FC: How about groups, have they changed at all? Are they valuable channels?

Greg: Frankly, groups are not as powerful as they used to be, however I think people ignore groups at their peril because they’re still a useful feature. Since we last spoke, LinkedIn have redesigned group functionality, splitting them into two types: standard groups, which are visible to anyone on LinkedIn or in web searches, and unlisted groups, which are completely private, invitation-only affairs which are invisible to anybody who’s not a member. They’re handy for things like customer support groups or even staff groups, things like that.

There are some really good groups on LinkedIn, but it tends to be the smaller ones which get engagement. If you look at a group like Social Media Marketing, they’ve got 1.7 million members so the chances of getting any traction in there from a discussion or a post are pretty slim.

I think a lot of confusion around groups also comes down to people not understanding how to post or interact in them. I find it is still possible to get conversations going on group posts but you have to frame them as discussion or a question, which encourages a conversation to develop. Most people posting into groups see it as a place to dump the latest article and off they go.

FC: There were rumours that LinkedIn might be getting rid of groups entirely, any truth in that?

Greg: There was certainly some speculation, and I know from my contacts that the nature of groups has been a hot topic within LinkedIn. There are now over 2 million groups, that must take quite a bit of processing power and groups are not generating any direct revenues.

Changes that LinkedIn have made over the last year have had the effect of making groups much less visible overall. They’ve been tucked away in the little grid on the right hand side on the newsfeed page, and that’s the only place you can identify them. The latest inside information I have is that groups are NOT going away, but they are likely to be completely reinvented.

FC: So, for now, the key to groups is to get involved in the conversation, not just post and run?

Greg: Exactly. People talk about social media but they put far too much emphasis on the media bit and they forget the social bit. The real value for LinkedIn is when you get social, when you get into the conversation.

FC: As a business owner or marketing director, how would you best use the LinkedIn ecosystem to drive awareness and engagement for the business specifically? What would your top tips be?

Greg: The first point is to build your network with relevant connections, a custom-built audience for your content.

FC: So that’s any networking event, any meeting you go to, any exhibition, anything like that, making sure you link with them?

Greg: Yeah. What tends to happen for most people on LinkedIn is they connect very passively, accepting invitations that come in. Some people just accept every invitation but what that actually means is that strangers are shaping your network, and your network is probably your most important single business asset.

Whilst it’s okay to accept invitations from other people, you’ve got to be selective about it and you’ve got to balance that by actively going out and connecting with your target audience; the people you really want to get to.

FC: Is it worth having a spring clean, do you think, and disconnecting with people that you don’t even recognise?

Greg: I know that some people do that, but personally I don’t think there’s any value in it. If someone’s dormant on your network, they’re dormant, they’re not doing any harm. You never know, it just could be that the odd person that’s sitting there sees one of your articles, they haven’t engaged with you for three years and all of a sudden you spot their interest and they mention you to someone and then a project comes out of it.

“LinkedIn has officially passed the half a billion user mark. If you are a B2B business your target audience can be found on LinkedIn, guaranteed”

Some of those clients I mentioned to you at the start are not sophisticated companies, but they are getting tons of business from LinkedIn. They’re simply posting regularly, they’re posting engaging images, they’re adding informative comments on their posts, not sales pitches, and it’s working. They’ve also invested time in building broad but relevant networks with whom to share their content.

One of the companies, the conveyor belt company, have a team of 10. When I started working with them they had 1,000 connections between them, and today they have 30,000. They’ve literally built their own tailor-made audience. That’s their community that they share their content with now. What they’re doing is not magic, they are doing the basics well. With LInkedIn, as with everything, you get out what you put in..

FC: OK, and the second piece of advice for driving engagement?

Greg: The second bit of advice is relevance, not to your own industry, but to your target clients. I often use the example of one of my clients who sells safety barriers to the rail industry. He shared a report on rail safety written by one of the big rail safety bodies. There’s no mention of safety barriers or any of the products they sell, it was just showing something that he knew would be valuable to his particular target audience.

And the third thing is really promoting your content. I’ve seen lots of people on LinkedIn who are writing articles and they sit there with two or three views and one or two likes because they’ve written them, put them on LinkedIn and then that’s it.

You’ve got to promote content. I’ve got a colleague in the States, a very successful blogger, and he spends 20% of his time writing the blog and 80% of it promoting it. If you publish a blog on LinkedIn it’s got to be shared three or four times at least on LinkedIn, and then shared on Twitter and any other platforms, and linked in your email signature. You have to promote them to get traction.

FC: So, top three tips: build your network, give them the right content, promote your content?

Greg: 100%.

FC: On the question of promotion, how about advertising on LinkedIn? Any specific tips there?

Greg: LinkedIn’s got some really powerful and unique advertising opportunities. There are three main types: a text ad which appears in the small text on the right hand side of the screen, and sponsored content where you can take a post from the company page and turn it into an ad, which then appears in the home feed. It doesn’t look like an ad at all, just sponsored content. It looks like an ordinary post. They’re pretty effective.

Then the third one is sponsored emails. That’s quite new. It’s always been available to people with LinkedIn Account Manager or the bigger accounts, but now it’s available to people on a self-service platform as well. This is quite an interesting one because you can send an email to anybody that you want to target and get it straight into their inbox.

FC: Have you used that functionality? Have you seen it used to a good effect with anyone, because it sounds intrusive to me?

Greg: LinkedIn have actually got a safeguard built in so that nobody can receive more than one of those sponsored emails in any two-month period, so it’s absolutely definitely not going to be a spam issue.

In terms of response, you get typically – for the sponsored ads I think it’s on average about .03% click-through. That’s a pay per click option, so if you were reaching 1,000 people in your campaign you’d expect 35 people to click. I don’t have any figures for the sponsored email and they work in a slightly different way.

FC: The real value of LinkedIn is the data they hold, particularly if you’re B2B, isn’t it?

Greg: Absolutely. In particular, you can target people by skills, for example, you can target them by the university they went to, you can target them by their function, by their job title. You can even exclude companies, so if there are some competitors coming into your target audience you can exclude those from your campaign.

FC: What’s the general rule of thumb with advertising? Would you say it’s a case of ‘try it out and see what works’?

Greg: As a general rule you’ve got to have a product or service with a customer lifetime value greater than about £12,000. If that’s the case then absolutely, go and test it. Test, measure, revise.

FC: Why those figures? Why that lifetime value limit?

Greg: Well, when you get below that you’re not getting such a good return. It’s a relatively expensive advertising investment compared to Facebook or AdWords. You’re looking at something like maybe £3.50 or more per click, which is significantly greater than what you’d be paying on Facebook, but it tends to convert better at the far end of the funnel.

FC: Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you think people need to know about the new-look LinkedIn?

Greg: I think it’s important to keep up with the changes because LinkedIn is a very important tool for connecting with your target audience and, like all social media, it changes all the time. There could be a new feature that’s been launched which could be really useful for you.

For example, there was a feature called Premium Insights introduced about six months ago, which shows you how fast a company is growing and which departments are growing within that company, how many employers they’ve taken on and how many senior management employees they’ve taken on. It gives you a detailed analysis of the growth of that organisation. That can be really useful to companies providing services such as office interiors, where the growth in the company is one of the key triggers for their service.

FC: With that in mind, then, what are some of the big changes on the horizon?

Greg: This year’s major desktop update is something that LinkedIn has been planning for some time. Following the acquisition by Microsoft for £26bn in 2016, the next big changes will be about integrating the two platforms. You’ll see LinkedIn integrated with Microsoft Outlook and the Office suite.

Sponsored ads will be available across Microsoft properties, LinkedIn Learning will be available across the Office 365 and Windows ecosystem, and we’ll see a massive refocus on social selling through the combination of Sales Navigator and Dynamics 365.

For the average user, especially Office users, I believe this will be good news. Members will be able to access their preferred productivity tools and their LinkedIn network from the same screen. At a stroke, this will increase the time people spend on LinkedIn, which will encourage more engagement and lead to greater ad revenues, cementing LinkedIn’s place as the go-to online meeting place for businesses.

A positively virtuous circle – at least that’s the theory.

FC: Great stuff. Greg, thank you very much for your time.

Greg: You’re welcome.

Huge thanks to Greg for his time and his insights. LinkedIn is a key weapon in the B2B marketing arsenal, but it’s so much more effective if you have original content to share. Take a look at some of the clients we’ve helped.

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I’m the Head of Content for Future Content and the man in charge of words. As a former journalist for a number of publications, from Chat to MailOnline to that’s Shanghai, I have a wealth of editorial experience and a way of making words do good.