With 2 million posts a day, LinkedIn is driven by user-generated content and a sense that machines, as opposed to people, dictate which articles cut through.
That is why hearing it has an expanding team of highly experienced editors may come as a surprise. What can their role be in this automated and algorithm led world? Dan Roth, LinkedIn’s editor-in-chief is just the man to ask, and The Drum did just that when it caught up with him in London.
“LinkedIn’s mission is to help the world’s professionals be more productive and successful. Our mission is to get them talking,” he claims. “Our editors do three things - curate, cultivate and create content.”
Now one would assume his emphasis would be on creation, but with the team’s emphasis on starting conversations, Roth says curation is actually key.
“Just creating and serving content is not enough - curating it can be a better use of our time,” he explains before clarifying that by identifying which posts are getting traction and selecting them for inclusion in news bars or dedicated newsletters, it allows the content to build engagement.
However, the team can also be more proactive. “Cultivation is one of the most exciting things,” he said, “This is where we can approach people, for example in the Fintech space to discuss subjects such as Brexit.
“But LinkedIn also has the power to reach people in a scalable way. During the recent US Government shutdown, for example, we were able to reach out to employees who were affected and asked them to write about the impact on their careers; maybe they were having trouble paying the mortgage as a result of not being paid.
“We found that wherever we did this the result is the same. People say they did not know we cared. And when they write, the response can blow them away - for example in the case of the Government shut down LinkedIn readers offered to support those affected after seeing their posts, maybe even offering to employ them.”
With a background that includes working as an editor for the likes of Fortune, Roth joined LinkedIn eight years ago, in an era where it was still very much a digital CV bank. Today, it has grown into a fully-fledged social platform and with new editors being appointed across the world, there is a real sense that greater emphasis is being placed on B2B content generally. So what is the end game?
“We will carry on to build a human and machine combination,” he said. “We will work closely with our data scientists to find ways for the machines to do more of what we are currently doing, to free us up to focus on the things which require human initiative.
“At the moment we have an editorial team that focuses on areas that have an outsized impact on our community - segments like healthcare, finance, small business.
“In 10 years time, we will have a lot more of that. But I want to make sure we go deeper and deeper into these segments.”
So should niche publications such as - now let me think about this for a moment - The Drum, be afraid?
“My guess is that we will become a major distribution channel for news - maybe the first place people turn to in the morning for B2B news. However, after that, they will go somewhere else like The Drum.
“But really our focus is just to get people to come once during the day or a couple of times a week, so we are not a threat to publishers.
“I don’t think our team will be focussed on breaking news. We are more about opinion. Although we may highlight breaking news we will send people out of the site.”
And to stress the point he points to the LinkedIn publishing partnership programmes where newsrooms and LinkedIn can share information on what it's trending on each other site to for mutual benefit.
But many analysts will no doubt conclude that if LinkedIn has the content, the audience and the tech then inevitably it will replicate the traditional role of much of the B2B press. Publishers can either complain, or collaborate, but ultimately they will have to evolve
For now, LinkedIn is cultivating publishers. But it is also cultivating big-name writers such as Richard Branson. The aim of Roth and his team is to persuade them to cover the big issues of the day for his network. However, to what extent does Roth take his sub-editors pen to Richard Branson’s prose?
“We do not edit the work of the influencers,” said Roth, “We give them ideas and maybe steer them to write for a social age. But you do not need to edit them as they get the metrics to show if they are doing well or not.
“And they are A-type personalities - very competitive. When they do badly, they know they have done badly, and they get angry about it.”
So what tips are offered in terms of writing for a social age? He talks about offering advice to once chief executive that was seeking help.
“We had a meeting with him and he was going through his metrics and saying, ‘why am I not doing as well as Richard Branson?’
“His stuff was dull. It was like – ‘Hey, it's National Secretary Week, we should all be thankful to secretaries.’ And we said to him: ‘do you write like this?’ And he said ‘No.’ So we asked: ‘Do you read it before it was published?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Well if you don’t’ read it, why should others want to?’
Roth cites the 2019 Edelman Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Trust Barometer as he makes the points that today the chief executive is expect to be engaged with the big issues of the day. The study revealed that 71% of employees agree that it’s critically important for their CEO to respond to industry issues, political events and national crises.
Said Roth, “As a CEO you are no longer allowed to be silent. In fact, you are punished more for being silent than for talking. So, either you can be so scared that you never say a word, or you can talk and find an audience that supports you. But it can be a tightrope.”
And by that he means that CEOs are sometimes caught on the horns of a dilemma. On one hand the pressure has never been greater for them to be open. But the punishment for saying the wrong thing has never been more harsh - barely a day goes past where a brand or CEO is not the subject of a social media storm.
Roth believes to a certain extent LinkedIn is a more forgiving environment. “On platforms like Twitter, there can be a pile on, where people see something go negative and it opens the door to others being negative.
“On LinkedIn that does not really happen. For a start, there is no anonymity. And when you write your boss, your future bosses see what you are saying.
“And when people do write a post the first thing the algorithm does is push it out to their own network. So, the first comments are usually supportive as you Network usually want to support you. So these comments can then set the tone.”
So as the editor-in-chief what advice would he give to aspiring LinkedIn influencers?
“Well, we tell people constantly if you want to build an audience you should switch your ‘call to action’ on your profile settings from ‘connect’ to ‘follow’,” claims Roth.
“But beyond that, you just have to constantly experiment - there is no way to know what works. Should you write long, or short, post on a Monday or a Tuesday, I do not know. I can’t even work out how to game the algorithm and I work here.
“But I do know if you think you have got it, it will change almost instantly. You have to keep throwing stuff at the wall and see what sticks.”
All this effort? Surely people would simply be better off focussing on their ‘real’ jobs?
Concludes Roth: “Building your voice in public is work and well worth the commitment.”