"Welcome to the LinkedIn Family, lynda.com!"
One-and-a-half-billion-dollar acquisitions aren't regular occurrences at LinkedIn; Head of Content Ryan Roslansky extended a suitably enthusiastic greeting to his new colleagues as news of LinkedIn's high-profile move to acquire the online-learning company lynda.com broke in April 2015.
Four days later, LinkedIn made another, less-trumpeted announcement.
It introduced Elevate, a new platform that "helps companies and employees curate high-quality content, share easily to social networks, and measure the impact." Easier to overlook and a little short on detail, the Elevate launch announcement is no less significant, as it underscores a big part of LinkedIn's fundamental value proposition - "connecting people to opportunity" - while positioning the company squarely in the employee-advocacy space.
I wanted to know more. Having a major professional social-media network enter a market formerly occupied almost exclusively by its development partners poses some potentially awkward questions - so I looked for answers.
I reached out to the Elevate product-management team and connected with spokesperson Joe Roualdes. We agreed to meet at LinkedIn's London office, where I explored the thinking behind Elevate and watched as Roualdes put the platform through its paces. So ...
Why Does LinkedIn See the Need for an In-House Advocacy Product?
The answer was music to my ears. In keeping with its vision of "creating economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce," LinkedIn believes that there is a market niche for an advocacy product that focuses as much - if not more so - on the advantages for employees as on the benefits for employers.
I have written about the dangers of ignoring the skepticism that affects almost every individual faced with an invitation to participate in an advocacy program. "What's in it for me?" is an admittedly selfish response, but one that is nonetheless perfectly valid.
Roualdes is unequivocal. I am left in no doubt that Elevate is not, repeat NOT, a marketing tool; nor is it simply a broadcast channel for corporate content. Instead, LinkedIn believes that employees will see it as a valuable means of enhancing their professional reputations, aiding them in achieving their personal business objectives. The payback for an employer is the increased likelihood that its people will meet or exceed the organization's collective targets.
As Roualdes says: "Elevate addresses the needs of organizations and the aspirations of their employees in equal measure. Other employee-advocacy companies focus almost exclusively on the business benefit - typically, all they offer employees is gamification."
Where Does That Leave LinkedIn's Competitors?
So how, I ask, do those other companies feel about LinkedIn's entry to an already competitive space? "That's a question you should ask them, not me," is the answer.
Which, of course, I did. There was an uncanny similarity to several of their responses:
Russ Fradin, CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Signal, based in San Bruno, CA, told me:
"LinkedIn is a first-class organization and ... I'm excited to see what they bring out to the market. Obviously the Employee Advocacy category has exploded over the last 18 months and that has been fantastic for us. Having LinkedIn enter the market is great validation for what we have been doing for a long time but I also expect they will be a worthy competitor."
Validation was also a factor for Roope Heinilä, CEO of Finnish advocacy company SmarpShare:
"LinkedIn entering the employee-advocacy space helps further validate the market. While the space is highly competitive, it is also a huge market as Employee Advocacy is not specific to any industry or geography. It is great to see LinkedIn taking the lead on this and helping educate the market on the benefits of employee advocacy. We welcome the competition."
Ivan Tsarynny, Co-Founder of Canadian advocacy specialist PostBeyond, saw it much the same way:
"2015 is the year when Employee Advocacy transitions from "buzz word" to a "business term" and from PostBeyond's point of view, LinkedIn Elevate is a welcomed validation that further emphasizes the importance of Employee Advocacy."
All three noted that a fair comparison of features and product positioning will only be possible once Elevate is on general release later in 2015. I saw enough during the product walk-through with Roualdes to suggest that Elevate will not suffer by comparison with other advocacy platforms. But to be sure, I wondered ...
What Does Elevate Have to Excite Employees?
Roualdes wasn't holding back. He explained the thinking behind Elevate's advanced content-curation engine:
"The foundation of a successful advocacy program is the availability of a solid stream of high-quality content. We draw on sources that are specific to each individual, including people and companies they follow; Elevate uses these, together with the power of LinkedIn Pulse and the personalization offered by Newsle, to offer content that appeals directly to each employee's special interests."
The Elevate development team introduced some slick features. Curators review content feeds that are specific to each of them; as Roualdes suggests, the range of sources is comprehensive, although curators also have an option to upload content manually. Once items are approved for posting, curators share them in relevant topics, releasing them to users; topical content is presented to individuals according to their interests, and they post to their social networks.
I asked about LinkedIn's plans for adding further social networks to the platform, since Elevate currently supports sharing only via LinkedIn and Twitter. Additional social channels - including Facebook - will be added in future, Roualdes assured me; the decision to limit user options in early releases was based on surveys that showed LinkedIn and Twitter to be preferred for sharing business-related content.
Time to market was also a consideration. The company chose to accelerate the development phase in order to take advantage of buoyant market conditions and applied appropriate levels of technical resource; the result was an eye-watering 4-month delivery lead-time that maximized LinkedIn's sales opportunity without compromising functionality or limiting the potential for future enhancements.
So far, so good. But did Elevate meet user expectations? And in particular ...
How Have Customers Measured Success?
In every client organization, someone, somewhere, will want to see tangible benefits arising from the time, effort and money devoted to an advocacy program. Old-school CFOs may still be looking for that elusive social-media ROI - so what does LinkedIn have to offer?
In addition to its native system, Elevate supports third-party analytics packages; integration work continues as the pilot projects roll out. Roualdes explains that the Elevate team identifies specific metrics for each customer and configures the analytics package accordingly.
Given its track-record as a platform for head-hunters and job-seekers, one of the first results areas for Elevate is recruitment. Whatever the objectives, what is not in dispute is that each project needs to show a solid return for the employer and for employees, with goals that are demonstrably achieved.
"Comprehensive analytics are essential," says Roualdes. "We focus on identifying appropriate metrics for each client; there's a clear need to demonstrate achievement, against both business and individual objectives."
In practice, this means analytics dashboards for each user, showing the reach of that person's shares and the interactions that result. That's not an option typically offered by competitors - analytics are generally the preserve of administrators or curators. For Roualdes, it's a no-brainer:
"People respond to feedback that ties together cause and effect. If, for example, I see that someone views my profile after reading an article that I shared, it highlights common interests that might form the basis for a mutually beneficial business relationship."
That certainly makes sense to me. It might also worry some of the advocacy companies that now find themselves competing with a highly recognizable and powerful brand that has an enviable track record in driving through innovative programs and products.
Watch This Space
LinkedIn has jumped feet-first into the employee-advocacy marketplace, taking care to address an audience it feels is underexploited - employees. While Elevate is an invitation-only product until the second half of 2015, initial feedback from large-scale pilot clients, including Adobe in the U.S. and Unilever in Europe, is overwhelmingly positive; moreover, functionality should only improve over time.
I agree with Russ Fradin; I expect LinkedIn Elevate to be a worthy - and likely formidable - competitor. Clearly, employee-advocacy companies live in interesting times.
Beyond Engagement is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every other Thursday.
Editor's note (5/8/2015): An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that when a curator shares content with employees, they shared to employees based on profiles. SMT regrets the error.
Column logo by Marie Otsuka
Elevate Dashboard and Elevate Mobile App by LinkedIn Elevate