Influencers and CEOs take their brands to LinkedIn

Oct 16, 2023
Influencers and CEOs take their brands to LinkedIn
Marketer Zain Kahn says he earns more than $1mn a year in advertising revenue, thanks largely to his hundreds of thousands of social media followers.

He is not pushing products to fans on TikTok and Instagram, however. Kahn is one of a new breed of “influencers” on an altogether different platform: LinkedIn.

Kahn has built up a 772,000-strong following on the site in about a year. He does not make money directly from LinkedIn but uses it primarily to promote his artificial intelligence newsletter, which attracts advertisers. “The audience on LinkedIn is orders of magnitude more valuable than other platforms,” he says.

The Microsoft-owned professional networking platform, once a home purely to job hunting and networking, has become overrun with many of its 930mn users sharing career-focused, often aspirational content, in the hope of building substantial followings.

Initially the realm of select business magnates such as Richard Branson, lesser-known marketers, tech entrepreneurs and even creatives such as US rapper Snoop Dogg are now trying to leverage the platform.

Their success at attracting large followings has caught the attention of some high-profile chief executives, who are also now attempting to build personal brands on the platform and boost the profile of their businesses.

Building an audience takes you from a point where you are chasing opportunities to where they are chasing you

“We get tons of questions on how do I, as a C-suite leader, show up in a way that brings a halo to my company?” says Dan Shapero, LinkedIn’s chief operating officer. “There is a growing demand for advice . . . executives are recognising that often the brand of their company has so much to do with how they are viewed.”

A market has sprung up to help, with consultants, agencies, in-house advisers and PR specialists advising chief executives on how to harness LinkedIn.

Craig Mullaney, partner at press relations firm Brunswick Group, says LinkedIn has proved to be the single most powerful communication channel for some of the chief executives it works with. “In a crisis, that’s often the time when it’s hardest for the CEO to get their point of view across, particularly if the media doesn’t agree with their perspective. So [LinkedIn] acts as a direct channel to their employees and investors.” 

Last year, for example, when a mass shooting took place at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia, by an employee targeting their colleagues, the retailer’s chief executive Doug McMillon took to LinkedIn to offer support to those affected and reassure staff. 

Another benefit to having a platform on LinkedIn is the ability to attract staff. According to a 2022 report by Brunswick, when applicants are researching a business they might join, they look first at the company website, then the CEO’s LinkedIn page.

Building a profile on the platform is made easier by the relatively small number of “influencers” — also known as creators — making it less competitive. At the same time, the user base is committed. “Nobody’s going to ever challenge LinkedIn because our whole network is there,” says Lou Paskalis, an advertising veteran and chief executive of AJL Advisory.

While CEOs’ main objective on LinkedIn is to craft their corporate image, the influencers they look to for tips are turning the platform into a livelihood, monetising audiences indirectly through brand deals and speaking gigs, advertising-backed newsletters and courses. 

Naming himself “The AI Guy”, Kahn shares practical advice, often in list form, about how professionals can take advantage of new AI trends and tools. One of his most popular posts, “15 powerful ChatGPT prompts to save you 15 hours a week”, has garnered more than 15,000 likes, and hundreds more comments and reposts.

One reason he chooses LinkedIn is the user profile. On X, formerly Twitter, his audience tends to be younger and less professional. But on LinkedIn, “they make a certain threshold of income so have purchasing power, and are also decision makers”, he says. “Building an audience takes you from a point where you are chasing opportunities to where they are chasing you.”

For baseball player-turned-entrepreneur Sahil Bloom, LinkedIn is similarly the biggest source of subscribers to his newsletter, which makes between $60,000 and $70,000 a month from advertising. It also generates leads for his other businesses, which include a personal branding agency and web design.

“LinkedIn is in the earliest innings of realising its power as a social network,” says Bloom.

For those looking for internet fame without the trolling and vitriol that often comes with it, LinkedIn offers a safer space than rivals such as X, according to users. 

Bloom says: “As someone who prides himself on growing his platform by sharing positive content and without stoking negativity, rage, or controversy, this is particularly compelling to me.”

Gretchen Rubin, a bestselling author who writes about self-management and careers, has close to 3mn followers on the platform but says she has “never been attacked or had a negative experience like that”. She describes the platform as “a great free resource” for her work, adding: “I feel like the world is my research assistant.” 

Still, LinkedIn is not for everyone. Some complain the user experience, as well as analytics capabilities, are lacking, while it is home to sophisticated scammers, prompting warnings from the FBI. 

Meanwhile, the tendency of some users to post glossy corporate speak and gushing motivational mantras has drawn criticism that it is the social media embodiment of “toxic positivity”. 

A popular formula has arisen whereby users describe how they overcame adversity and found success, often with a pithy inspirational sign-off, prompting satirical versions from comedians and ridicule from accounts on X, such as “The State of LinkedIn”. Users of a Reddit forum dedicated to “insufferable” LinkedIn content baulked at the launch of Snoop Dogg on the platform. 

Nobody’s going to ever challenge LinkedIn because our whole network is there

LinkedIn, which increased revenues by 8 per cent this year, is encouraging creators. It has been adding new capabilities and formats such as audio, live video and newsletters. It has a news and creator team, led by former Fortune managing editor Dan Roth, which consists of more than 200 journalists and editors helping promote and curate a feed of professional conversations.

Recently, it started an initiative that wields AI to generate conversation starters, then asks relevant experts to add their own comments and contributions. 

“What’s really unique to LinkedIn is they have an editorial function,” says Mullaney. “When an executive has news that’s important to hear, if they’re working with LinkedIn and the editorial team, there are all sorts of levers the team can pull to generate real reach.” He cites examples such as putting creators into recommendations, push notifications and the news tab.

Other users, such as clothing designer Jason Mayden, applaud the platform for promoting diversity and black entrepreneurs where others have failed. 

“I’ve found on LinkedIn, as there’s a level of intellect in what I do, the platform allows me to display that and not be pigeonholed,” says Mayden, one of the LinkedIn’s so-called Top Voices, who posts to his 10,000 followers about his creative process and career path. “[With] other platforms, you’re at the mercy of an algorithm that places you in a certain category.”