After six months in beta, LinkedIn unveiled its "Sponsored Updates" feature for marketers with budgets of all sizes, and mindful of balancing current trends around programmatic, native advertising and content marketing.
Alison L. Engel, LinkedIn's senior director of global marketing, acknowledged that those terms sum up the latest evolution of the professional social network's advertising and editorial offerings. But she still hopes to eschew such terms, as she's also keenly aware of the hype surrounding the efforts of LinkedIn and other large social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr to demonstrate a clear revenue stream.
But whereas those other sites are even more wary of overt advertising mixing in with their respective editorial tools and softer "earned media marketing" strategies, Engel and Adobe, one of the major clients that beta tested Sponsored Updates, do see a clear line between content and display advertising.
"There are a variety of tiers that clients can avail themselves of," Engel said. "If a client is assigned a salesperson, they will have greater assistance in using the Sponsored Updates and other marketing services that we have in place. If you don't have an account service person dedicated for you, the marketer is directed to the self-serve tool, though we have different levels of service that are available, depending on the budget of the campaign."
LinkedIn isn't disclosing what the various marketing thresholds are, as they will likely be refined over the next few months. Sponsored Updates is an expansion of the content program LinkedIn has built up with its 1.5 million publisher partners over the past two years, along with the 300 professionals who post opinion and thought pieces through its Influencer feature.
To use Sponsored Updates, LinkedIn clients just need two things to get started. First, they have to set up an official company page. After that, the marketer needs to set up a campaign manager account, which is part of LinkedIn's existing self-serve ad platform. Once those two things are in place, marketers can load up content to sponsor and choose the audience profile they want to target and whether they want to pay on a CPM model or cost-per-click. Marketers can also use the self-serve dashboard to set a budget and duration for the Sponsored Update campaign. The Sponsored Update post appears in the Targeted Audiences feed when their bids have been accepted.
"It's all very similar to any kind of auction-based environment, but we hesitate to identify this as 'programmatic' or 'native' because those terms are still ill-defined and we don't want to sow more confusion in the marketplace," Engel said.
For Adobe, an existing LinkedIn advertiser, the addition of Sponsored Updates is a way to complement its display ads across the professional social network with earned media.
"The question we face in general when it comes to using social media, whether its Facebook or Twitter or some other channel, is when you have an audience gathered around your brand, what do you want to say," said Matt Rozen, group manager for Corporate Social Media at Adobe. "You don't want to just place ads everywhere. LinkedIn is the one social channel where people go to mainly focus on their work. And that presents an opportunity to talk more directly to certain audiences in a way that feels more natural and targeted than if we had that same conversation on Facebook or Twitter."
Engel stressed that LinkedIn wants to offer both a "B2B and B2c" experience for its advertisers. At the outset of Sponsored Updates, Rozen said he sees a chance to perfectly blend the two. For its first campaign using this tool, Adobe wants to ensure that it's known for more than its Flash multimedia tools, but also for its own digital marketing and social media expertise.
"There are two main themes we want to explore using Sponsored Updates to augment our display ads: one is to promote the digital media side of the business, which includes creative cloud solutions and the other is the digital marketing side of the business," Rozen said. "We're burning some calories to get the word out about our marketing cloud and measurement solutions. So we need to get in front of digital marketers. And LinkedIn provides great context to do that."
Getting in front of the audience is one thing, but taking advantage of it is another. Discerning whether the message got across and how it affected someone's thinking is something that LinkedIn and its clients will still have to figure out.
For the moment, Rozen said the best gauge will be to see how many "shares" a Sponsored Update post gets on LinkedIn's network.
"The question we asked ourselves at the start of this process was, 'Can we move the needle in terms of how professionals in the digital space perceive Adobe's brand?" said Rozen. "The answer will be found in how many shares our posts get and whether it drives up the number of followers of our LinkedIn page. That's the initial goal. As for the next phase, we'll be looking closely at what develops and whether there are other touchpoints related to brand awareness that we can glean from the use of this tool."