LinkedIn's marketing and communications professionals work together to continually hone and spread the right message about the growing professional online network.
Despite growing at a remarkable speed, LinkedIn has confronted some daunting coverage. The press suggested the professional online network was doomed in the face of Facebook's rapid ascension last year.
With more than 18 million users worldwide, and growing at a rate of 1 million additional users per month, it was far from irrelevant. Until recently, however, most people's familiarity with LinkedIn was limited to sending and accepting invites, giving even more fodder to media reports that the network couldn't find its footing.
So, the company identified that public misconception and set up a communications strategy to firmly position LinkedIn as social network for professionals to further their careers.
"I think we're still - to a certain extent - in that situation," says Patrick Crane, VP of marketing. "There is a difference between perception and reality, and marketers have to fight against that."
Adding to the challenge, Crane says, is explaining how to use a professional social network, especially in a climate when people are told to fiercely protect their online persona from employers and colleagues.
"People say - I have my Rolodex or I have my Microsoft Outlook, why would I need this?" he adds.
To spread the message about the value of the network, the team is using anecdotes from users about their success in using the network for new jobs.
"Our members are professionals," says Kay Luo, director of corporate communications.
"So we can't compare along the same kind of benchmarks as the traditional social networking sites."
LinkedIn will measure success by how well it helps users meet professional goals or enhance their work lives. Another goal is to be known among professionals and the media as a productive site rather than as a distraction. It is using various new media channels to get that message across, says Luo.
Last year, the company launched a blog, which has unexpectedly become a resource hub not only for users, but also for journalists and other bloggers, says Luo. LinkedIn has used the blog to implement a more agile and quick-footed communications strategy than traditional media outreach allows.
"What's interesting [is that] news that doesn't it into our PR calendar often makes it onto the blog," Luo says. "Many times, those conversations are more immediate."
For example, last month data portability was a hot topic in the blogosphere. Though the company did not plan to address the issue in its PR strategy, two of its engineers were able to insert LinkedIn into the dialogue by adding a post that addressed the topic from the company's perspective.
Translating the message
As most savvy tech companies have discovered, bloggers don't like PR pitches, but may listen when an engineer suggests an idea. So the company's blog is a way for engineers, working on projects they are passionate about, to communicate their excitement to bloggers, without watering the message down with corporate-speak from the communications department, Luo notes.
"A challenge with a blog is, it's not something your PR department can create," Luo notes. "It's a totally different psyche than I have as a PR professional."
The company grappled with whether to hire a PR professional to oversee the blog, deciding it was most important to find someone who had credibility and relationships within the social media sphere. In March 2007, the company hired blogger Mario Sundar to take the position of community evangelist.
"You have to have a trained communicator, but it's a different voice and way of communicating than when you're PR," Luo says. "And it involves a lot more listening."
Often the contributors to the blog are site engineers rather than the marketing team. "What's cool is you get people throughout the company involved in the communications process outward," Luo says.
Sundar says while the blog has been an effective way for the network to reach its target audiences, the company is working on expanding its multimedia presence. Recently, The New York Times and Reuters picked up a story based on a blog post and linked to the firm's online video that discussed the topic.
"I think the biggest challenge with any blog is growing the audience as fast as possible," he says, "[while] maintaining adequate content sources for all of our reader base."
A strategy to address this has been to add Twitter updates to its social media mix - allowing the team to keep interested users up-to-date on the latest news the moment it happens. The company has also established a YouTube channel.
"Presenting a broad spectrum of choices," Sundar points out, "is the way to go when trying to develop a mass audience."
This variety is fueled by having an interdisciplinary communications team that doesn't set firm boundaries among marketing, PR, and social media areas, Luo adds.
"I think the functions within our group are not so much aligned with 'you're a PR person so go talk to the press,' it's become more program-based," she says. For example, LinkedIn's political liaison talks to the press, but also increases the site's presence among politicians.
"When we look at PR, we are trying to communicate how certain industries or types of professionals can use LinkedIn," she adds.
No matter the industry, the underlying messaging inevitably comes back to showing users that LinkedIn will add value to their careers.
"I think the biggest challenge has been, and still is, educating the public on how to use LinkedIn," she says. "Even seemingly savvy members of LinkedIn are now realizing it goes so much deeper."
New media initiatives from LinkedIn
Launched last year, the blog has become an inter-active hub where journalists, users, and bloggers engage with the brand.
LinkedIn Twitter feed
The mobile technology allows the comms team to monitor the most recent news and conversations about LinkedIn, while giving users by-the-second updates on company news.
LinkedIn YouTube channel
Publications, including The New York Times, have used the channel to add multimedia links to news stories and blog posts.
Modeling the success of ProfNet and Yahoo Answers, this feature allows LinkedIn to expand its brand and become an online information resource for users and journalists.