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LinkedIn: Cultivating brand engagement through social networks

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9th Mar 2009
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Firms are increasingly turning to social networks to connect with professional audiences, but is the tactic actually providing any success? Louise Druce reports on how LinkedIn's Kevin Eyres thinks marketers can interact with and engage their audience to gain new insight - and create brand advocates.

By Louise Druce, editor

When asked recently whether Web 2.0 and social networking was a fad, you will be unsurprised to learn that Kevin Eyres, managing director, Europe, of professional network LinkedIn, dismissed this notion and pointed to its gathering momentum. Statistics bear this out.

The organisation so far boasts some 35 million users, while both Facebook and MySpace claim to have well trumped the 100 million mark and growing (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg believes it will surpass 200 million members by the end of the year and both featured in the hitwise 2008 most searched for brands). While the likes of Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Britney Spears and Barack Obama have pushed Twitter into the mainstream.

"The questions you need to ask when interacting and engaging online are who are you trying to influence or interact with? And in what context is the user in - a social or a business network?"

Kevin Eyres, managing director Europe, LinkedIn

No wonder then that marketers in small and big firms alike are starting to look beyond the hype and believe there is an opportunity to tap into a whole new virtual world of potential prospects. However, having a presence on a social network doesn’t necessarily mean you're having the right conversation with users. For instance, imagine going to a traditional networking conference (even representing a major, well-recognised brand) and just standing in the corner with a business card. You may get noticed and perhaps occasionally approached out of curiosity. But have you achieved true interaction?

It’s the sort of dilemma now facing firms in the social networking sphere – "I’ve joined a site but how do I make the most out this opportunity when it comes to brand engagement?" Speaking recently at Technology for Marketing and Advertising, Eyres proposed that people using social networking sites should be seen as a brand in their own right. "Web 2.0 is a transitional interaction with the web," he said. "With LinkedIn, individuals are represented as a brand. Everybody is a small business and brand aspects are transitional."

Relationships

The key to all of this, he added, is relationships. "The questions you need to ask when interacting and engaging online are who are you trying to influence or interact with? And in what context is the user in - a social or a business network?" said Eyres. "The setting for how you interact gives you context and the state of mind of the member. You really need to listen, then figure out how to engage on what they're telling you."

For example, a person using Facebook might be looking to catch up with old friends and share pictures and news, rather than looking to do business or champion one brand over another. Eyres cites The New York Times as a brand, which like The LA Times and other major newspapers set up a Facebook page. While members could add themselves as a 'friend', and maybe suggest to their friends that they became friends, Eyres has questioned the true nature of interactivity and brand engagement - are friends actually brand advocates?

As social networking gains in popularity, other pressing concerns are surfacing. For example, on Twitter the lines are now being blurred between using the site as an outlet for personal opinion and interests, and using it to purely market your services. Meanwhile, on a more fundamental level, it is not uncommon for businesspeople to sign up to LinkedIn because other colleagues and friends are using it, only to have no idea what exactly to do with it past filling out personal profiles.

Eyres has several recommendations for these people (as outlined in the boxout) - including utilising the groups, connecting to influential members of the community, and also focusing on the authenticity of dialogues that take place.

Practical steps for marketers
  • Sign up and connect to trusted professionals on professional networks
  • Join groups and engage with people
  • Connect to the 'influencers' (active community members with large numbers of followers) and build out networks
  • Understand the opportunities for virality
  • Focus on the authenticity of dialogues
  • Go beyond the banner ad

This last point raises an important issue for Eyres, and one that has become increasingly pertinent for LinkedIn. The worsening economic conditions have led to an influx of people diluting the site with recruitment requests – be it that they wanted to connect with recruitment organisations in the hope of finding a job or headhunting people themselves. What can't necessarily be gauged is the authenticity and quality of these contacts. For example, 'Joe Bloggs' could send a message to a recruiter claiming to be a top executive and looking for a job while really wanting to connect with them to get hold of the rest of their contacts.

Eyres has admitted that it comes down to being more explicit in the information you give, as there is no way to stop people contacting you, but he has also added the following: "We see a lot of people who want to gain knowledge and information beyond their connections. The second step is to run polls, join groups and converse with other people in the industry, and convert it. Leverage knowledge from your customer base. What actions do you want? How do you influence people and how do you measure that? How can it be effective?”

Certainly case studies seem to demonstrate the potential value of LinkedIn. The Institute of Directors (IOD), for instance, had implemented blogs on its site but of around 4,000 members, only about 100 people were using its site to network online. By having a presence on LinkedIn, it has 70 new discussions a week about business-critical matters.

Software firm Sage also partnered with LinkedIn for its Train Your Business Brain campaign, an ad-funded scheme to revive ITV show The Krypton Factor. By linking to a viral Krypton Factor quiz that could be distributed amongst peers, users were sharing and discussing the results around the competition and "added business value" by tying it all back to the site as well as Sage, who could also interact with respondents.

In November last year, news firm CNBC also created a poll on the site to ask members whether the US government should give billions to bail out the automotive industry. The consensus was 'no' but the negativity allowed the organisation to dissect the profiles of the 6,000 people who responded and follow up with an 'ask the experts' interview on air to discuss the findings. For firms in general, this sort of medium could be positively used to spark a debate about a hot topic coming up at a conference, for example, so they can fully address the issue.

However, Eyres doesn’t claim to have all the answers and LinkedIn is itself looking at ways to introduce services such as news. "We have a long way to go," he has admitted. "We are looking at how to get involved with discussions and understanding the right level of push. So we're experimenting with the frequency of what we give back."

Perhaps evidence of following not just giving your own advice? As Eyres said: "It's about knowing your network and how to drive interactions."
 

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By AnonymousUser
11th Mar 2009 13:46

Hi Ian,

You raise some good points. I think Kevin Eyres' key quote is: "The questions you need to ask when interacting and engaging online are who are you trying to influence or interact with? And in what context is the user in - a social or a business network?"

I think the main point here is that users have to establish the appropriate time for them to be Joe Bloggs of Bloggs International, rather than just Joe Bloggs the individual.

I've noticed that the value of LinkedIn groups are increasingly being diluted by the press releases and job postings masquerading as discussion threads. And I'd be interested to know whether such postings have any kind of success.

Certainly I'm unsurprised to hear Eyres encouraging people to be more sophisticated and 'engage' with other users - people will abandon the groups altogether if their value is diluted too much.

Neil Davey

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By wecandobiz
17th Mar 2009 12:27

Good points Neil. Most, if not all, of the engagement with people outside of your established network on LinkedIn is done in the groups. It's really the only way of picking up new contacts with people you don't already have a link to. If the value goes there then it's back to Square One: LinkedIn becomes, once again, a great way to reconnect with former work colleagues, but then what...?

LinkedIn exploits the fact you can't do all your business networking on Facebook. By the same token, I'd suggest it's worth making a distinction between the career development type networking that LinkedIn excels at and networking to win new customers which WeCanDo.BIZ exists to satisfy the need for.

Ian Hendry
CEO, WeCanDo.BIZ
http://www.wecando.biz

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