How reluctant executives can become LinkedIn influencers in 2023
If the idea of being more active on social media makes you cringe, that’s totally healthy. In fact, it’s a competitive advantage, writes Codeword’s Brandon Carter.
I was talking to a fintech exec and his marketing colleague about getting more active on LinkedIn to meet some marketing goals. We established the usual arguments — building more credibility, earning a reputation for subject-matter expertise, driving conversation, and being more visible at key events. That sort of thing. They were looking for some social strategy and a clear idea on what to prioritize, but first, the exec in question needed a little convincing. The reason was eye-opening.
It wasn’t that he needed to know why he should engage on social media. His struggles were more existential.
I’m paraphrasing, but he said a big part of him was cringing at the idea of joining the fray and contributing to so much of what he saw in his own LinkedIn feed, which he characterized as “bullshit.” Too many empty platitudes, obvious takes, and calculated attempts at vulnerability (he was determined no one would ever see him cry on LinkedIn). He didn’t want to be a thought leader if the treacle he was seeing in his feed was “thought leadership.”
All fair points, and I was fixated on the idea that he thought he had to adopt this manner of speaking and engaging online. Or that he had to adopt a certain manner at all. He was worried he’d be breaking some kind of social contract if he was just… himself, and that worry was freezing him in his tracks.
Which got me thinking: How many execs have the same reservations about building a personal brand online?
This is one of the downsides of influencer creep; it isn’t just that more people in every walk of life feel pressure to create more social media all the time; or that we’re all posting meta versions of ourselves that further alienate us from our actual experience of the world. People feel pressure to craft a meta-self they don’t even agree with.
I’m here to say don’t do it. No one will force you, and many will be grateful you didn’t, because they feel the same way you do.
I would say “be authentic,” but even this notion feels performative to the reluctant thought leader. If authenticity is about fidelity to the self, once you start thinking about that, you become self-aware, and that’s hard for some people to pull off. Best not to think too hard about “being authentic.” This is just about using your own unique perspective, experiences, and attitude as a competitive advantage.
If everything is bullshit, and you don’t post bullshit, you’re already winning an important strategic battle–that of differentiation. If you dare to sound a little different, that gets people’s attention and tacit endorsement. You get the coveted quiet share (what they used to call "dark social," like it was a bad thing). The DM that starts a business partnership. Do it consistently, and you start to get a reputation. It starts to color your company's reputation.
Breaking the staid “thought leader” template also starts to unlock more creative possibilities–so many that you can never really run out of content. Here are a few bottomless wells of content you can dip into with this approach:
• Let people know you’re tired of a tired take, and then share yours
• Make an observation you think could help your network
• Share a vulnerability
• Ask a question you genuinely don’t know the answer to
• Highlight a problem too few people are talking about
• Share a lesson you learned recently, and who you learned it from
Those six bullets alone represent endless content, that doesn’t have to sound like “content.” And that’s just work stuff, we’re not even talking about your pleas for a new show to watch, something funny your kid said, or something rude someone just said to you.
Breaking the template solves a pervasive problem of another kind: the exec losing interest.
Andrew Yang said something really instructive in his book Forward about this. He, too, struggled with going from not using Twitter at all, to using it as his primary communication tool on his presidential campaign. He had a whole team of comms professionals telling him what he should post and when. But none of that really motivated him to start building a brand and audience on Twitter. He had to motivate himself. He had to–in his words– “resolve to enjoy it.”
To do that, he needed Twitter to serve some functional purpose in his daily life. He needed to treat it like a journal, a way to decompress, reflect on what he was seeing and hearing on the road. Once he did that, posting daily was easy. Now he has nearly two million followers.
In our world, exec social programs tend to succeed when they’re largely self-directed, when their perspective and experience is the fuel that keeps the engine running. We’ve seen plenty of well-intentioned attempts at social thought leadership programs slowly peter out simply because the person the program was built for lost interest. We’ve seen with many folks, the more engaging online feels like a chore that requires a small army of marketers, the less likely it is the exec will consistently prioritize it or be excited.
Back to our dear fintech client: where does this approach leave his marketing colleague? Where does this leave an agency partner like me?
It boils down to two things:
• Clearing hurdles to posting more (whether they’re just getting started, or already have a following); and
• Surfacing opportunities
That sounds simple enough, but long-term strategic success rests almost entirely on marketing’s ability to execute these tasks at a high level. They can be tricky to pull off.
Every exec works differently, but the one thing that’s true of all of them is this is not their full-time job. They have products to build, companies to run, and people to manage. It’s a lot to ask them to stay up to date on social media best practices, trending topics, and ever-changing aesthetics.
As strategic collaborators, marketing and its partners has to know how the exec moves so they can anticipate and clear barriers in a smart way.
Some people are really self-conscious about their writing and want help there. Worrying you’re not a good writer should never be a barrier to engaging online. The exec should worry about sounding like themselves more than anything. Once that’s been accomplished (a hastily typed list of bullets with their thoughts is a great place to start), the marketing writers can make it coherent, sense-check a few things, and make sure it still sounds like the exec.
Some execs think they’re the best writer they know and couldn’t possibly benefit from editing That’s totally fine. Have they considered video for building their brand or instigating a more meaningful conversation? They’d probably be grateful for the help with video production and editing if they can barely take a picture on their phone. Marketing should marshal the resources for a lean video experiment to see how it goes.
And then of course marketing and its partners should spot the right opportunities. What is marketing but seizing opportunities to make the brand and the business stronger? This is where marketing should shine, where the relationship with execs becomes one of trust and collaboration instead of… what it usually is. Execs should think “marketing can help me take my game to the next level.”
How to reconcile the content with the algorithms. Which hashtags to use for visibility and brand-building. What to say online at the next event to make an impression. How to turn a parasocial relationship with a journalist into an actual relationship. Pointing out when the desired audience is in fact on TikTok (what the exec wants to do with that information, well they can help drive that decision, but there it is, an opportunity dangling in front of them). No one expects the exec to know this stuff innately, but marketing certainly should.
Trendspotting is a good test of this opportunity-surfacing collaboration.
Don’t send the exec an article and ask them if they’ve read it. They can’t. Or won’t. No time. And simply reacting to articles probably isn’t a strategic use of your exec’s time, even if it’s a really interesting article that’s breaking a new trend.
Marketing should instead analyze the trend itself (or ask a partner to do it) and determine if it has meaningful, strategic implications for the brand. Then ask if it’s something the exec needs to talk about, or if the brand needs to talk about it.
If it’s the former–or both–then you need to prompt the exec. Add it to the agenda for your next meeting with them. Hell, send them a Paperless Post with a quick rundown of what you’re thinking and ask them to reply with a few quick bullets that capture their genuine thoughts. That’ll get their attention. Whatever you do, don’t “ping” them. They’re drowning in pings all day. The prompt should be something that cuts through the mundanity and stress of their day and makes them pause for a moment.
That’s the kind of sensitivity to collaboration that underpins any successful exec comms program. That, and empowering the owner of unique perspectives and experiences to… well, own them. They have to find a way to enjoy sharing their thoughts. They have to invest in a little self-discipline to keep it going. To that exec we say: trust your storytelling instincts in persuading people to your side. Don’t let anyone sanitize it, least of all yourself.
You are the person you’ve been waiting for on social.
Brandon Carter is director of strategy at Codeword.