Smart thinking

How The Economist is engaging its audience on LinkedIn

What do you use LinkedIn for? To build your network by accepting those endless “invitations” to connect? Or something more? If you’re using LinkedIn properly, you’re probably putting it to work on raising your professional profile. There is one thing that really helps with this: showing off your expert knowledge, perhaps to your boss or your future employer.

That means what motivates users on LinkedIn is very different from the way things work on, say, Facebook. And it is a direct call to action for The Economist’s social media team. We’ve built a following of 6.4m people among LinkedIn’s active user base. How do we engage them with our content?

Giving them the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge has become crucial. So we’ve been asking our LinkedIn followers what they think about certain subjects with a short, direct question, highlighted in a red card, like this:

So far, so Facebook. On LinkedIn, we expect followers to bring their detailed knowledge to the table (just as a potential employer would). But a short, snappy Facebook prompt like this is sometimes not enough to start a high-quality conversation. It can be hard for readers to join a debate when they lack the appropriate context or a clear, detailed argument to respond to. In particular, audiences may find it difficult to write long and considered comments on a brief social post.

So we’re accompanying those big questions with letters addressed to our LinkedIn audience. In these “Leading the debate” letters, The Economist’s view (taken from an article) is summarised in a few sentences, followed by a call to action for responses. By writing longer, more detailed posts like this we hope to prompt our followers to respond in kind.

Our letter on stress at work

It seems to be working. On average, these letter-style posts receive four times as many comments as a normal post on LinkedIn. The comments have generally been of a higher standard than we’d get normally, too — they are both longer and more considered. Followers often respond to our letters with their own, akin to those that we receive to our e-mail inbox (letters@economist.com).

For the most part, our letter posts have been based on leader articles. These editorials set out The Economist’s viewpoint on a topic, making them ideal for catalysing debate. We’ve also dipped into content from our Open Future series (a global conversation on liberal values), and articles from the business section (of obvious relevance to the LinkedIn audience).

One of our highest-performing letters was based on our editorial about school holidays. Giuliano A. agreed with our argument that summer holidays were too long, commenting that “mathematics needs to constantly be used or concepts are easily forgotten”. But others spoke up for teachers. Cristina Allen wrote that “teachers need time to recharge after months of hard work”.

We’ve found that very specific questions often perform below average. Letters work best when they ask an open-ended question, and when they are global in outlook, rather than specific to a particular region, because our audience is international.

LinkedIn is a platform ripe for experimentation, but publishers have to marry their ambitions in engaging users there with those users’ reason for being on the platform in the first place. Our audience seems willing to spend longer on responses, perhaps partly due to the professional purpose of the site. They can demonstrate their knowledge on complex topics to peers, and network with like-minded people in the comments section of our posts—and possibly show off a bit to the boss (or prospective boss), too.

Joshua Spencer is a social media writer at The Economist.