LinkedIn Cozies Up to Higher Ed Marketers

LinkedIn Cozies Up to Higher Ed Marketers

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US Under Secretary of Education, Ted Mitchell (left) with Dan Roth, LinkedIn’s Executive Editor / LinkedIn

In the middle of LinkedIn’s Education Connect event last week, the company flashed a message across a big screen. It read: “We are committed to higher education and investing in its future.”

It’s a message the professional networking site has spent the past 10 months preparing to deliver. It did so in-person at a New York City event that attracted more than 125 attendees, most of whom were higher education marketers.

The day’s packed agenda included an interview with Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell and panel discussions featuring marketers from Pearson and several universities. The event also featured a number of presentations by LinkedIn executives on topics such as “The Evolution of LinkedIn Marketing Services,” “How LinkedIn is Adapting its Platform for Higher Education” and “Connecting to the Student Journey with LinkedIn.”

The result: a mix of thought leadership, research-based insights, practical advice and subtle marketing pitches, all geared toward people who purchase ads or determine ad budgets at higher education institutions.

“Our goals were to provide a forum for clients to: share best practices and wisdom, to network and to think deeper and more long-term about where this industry is headed,” LinkedIn’s Education Vertical Marketing Lead, Saied Amiry told EdSurge.

One major topic was the evolution of today’s student, in terms of race, income, age and working status. During his interview, Under Secretary Mitchell noted that higher education students are less likely to be 18-year-olds heading to four-year private college programs and more likely to be 32-year-old single mothers going back to community college to reskill. Those demographic shifts are “demanding we change the way we deliver higher education,” Mitchell added.

Of course, LinkedIn believes it has a role to play, and promoted its higher education marketing services to an influential audience. As attendee Marshall Sponder, who teaches at Baruch College and Rutgers University, put it, “This was LinkedIn cozying up to a vertical it’s been trying to get more invested in.”

LinkedIn’s interest in the education market is based on business considerations, synergies with its main role as a job networking site and a general desire to connect its members with learning and career opportunities.

Students are LinkedIn’s fastest-growing segment. The company estimates that 47 million students are currently registered on its platform. (That figure includes all LinkedIn members who list schools in the “current experience” section of their profiles.) LinkedIn also considers education to be a natural fit for its member base. “We have 380 million professionals, many of whom have a high desire to upskill and remain relevant in their industries,” explained Amiry.

It’s no surprise then, that academic institutions are major customers of LinkedIn’s “Marketing Solutions” business line, which generates 20% of the company’s overall sales. As its name suggests, Marketing Solutions helps businesses, organizations and educational institutions market themselves on LinkedIn via ads, sponsored content and targeted emails.

LinkedIn says it has focused on serving the education market “for some time.” In fact, the company only held its first Education Connect event in 2014. However, that inaugural effort was much smaller and more informal than this year’s conference.

LinkedIn’s higher education outreach ramped up in January 2015 when the company upgraded education to become a “key vertical” within Marketing Solutions. (LinkedIn also has Marketing Solutions verticals for the auto, finance and travel industries.) In March, LinkedIn hired an executive named Jessica Naeve to run sales for the business and brought on Amiry in May.

One of Naeve and Amiry’s main tasks is to show education marketers that LinkedIn is more than just a place to occasionally communicate with prospective students. During Education Connect, Naeve told the audience that LinkedIn wanted to “partner more fully” with them through the entire student lifecycle.

“Our vision is that LinkedIn is not just a platform to get you an interested student,” Amiry explained. “We’re the platform that accompanies that student through his professional lifetime. We run alongside that student as he graduates and moves into a professional career.”

That vision dovetails with LinkedIn’s ambition to develop what it calls the “world’s first economic graph,” or a digital map of the global economy. Such a graph would include profiles of workers and companies around the world, listings of the jobs offered by those companies and representations of the skills required to obtain those jobs. Higher education organizations and universities would also appear on the graph as the places to obtain those job skills. LinkedIn says the graph wouldcreate economic opportunity for the global workforce by allowing intellectual, working and human capital to flow between workers, companies and universities.

LinkedIn didn’t push its economic graph concept at Education Connect, but it did make clear that it wants to be viewed as much more than just a jobs or recruitment platform. While most of the event’s content focused on the future of higher education, some speakers also talked up LinkedIn’s marketing products in relation to education trends.

During one panel, Cristina Raecke, Executive Director of Marketing and Recruitment at Florida International University Online, said her school markets to people who are “lifelong learners” and that LinkedIn’s targeted “InMail” messages have been “good for conversions” among prospective students. The school also uses LinkedIn to identify and contact alumni, Raecke said.

Liz Rossi, a Pearson paid search manager, said she buys a lot of Sponsored Updates (pieces of content that are published directly in members’ homepage feeds) for her academic partners. Rossi said she also uses InMail messages and “Spotlight” ads that integrate members’ profile images with advertising messages—and that she is working on launching display ads on LinkedIn. Some of Pearson’s LinkedIn marketing messages focus on outcomes in the form of Sponsored Updates that describe the benefits of attending the company’s partner schools.

Stefan Frank, the Director of New Media Communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, appreciated the member survey data LinkedIn shared with attendees and said his team, which directs Wharton’s social media efforts, has started incorporating some of the insights into its content strategy.

Sponder, the Baruch and Rutgers educator, said he plans to cover parts of the presented research in his courses next semester. But he also said he wished LinkedIn had used the event to ask attendees about new features they’d like to see and to preview upcoming products.

LinkedIn did mention some potential site tweaks during Education Connect. Proposals included consolidating its University pages with its Company pages so schools wouldn’t need to maintain two types of pages and rolling out programmatic buying for display ads, one-click lead generation and customer data onboarding tools. However, the plans appear vague as LinkedIn later told EdSurge, “These are areas we’re exploring, but [we] have nothing to confirm at this time.”

Ultimately, LinkedIn’s greatest asset in the higher education market is its member base—the hundreds of millions of professionals and tens of millions of students who belong to its site. As Frank, the Wharton marketer, observed, “…it seems higher ed institutions of all shapes and sizes recognize LinkedIn’s ability to attract and retain professional audiences.” Frank added, “When you consider LinkedIn’s mission and product road map, coupled with the macro trends and new technologies in the higher ed space, it really seems like the perfect marriage for higher ed marketers.”

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