Sometimes Mark A. Smith’s comments on LinkedIn posts receive more reactions than the initial post itself.
“If I see you getting 30, 40, 50,000 followers, and you start posting stuff that might encourage managers to think that they should just fire people left and right, I’m probably going to say something,” he says.
Mr. Smith, a Salt Lake City, Utah, management consultant and entrepreneur, has about 75,000 followers on the platform and gets a lot of engagement on his posts, which have received millions of views.
Though he hates the term influencer, many would anoint him as such. “The definition of influencers is not just popular people who sell products and services,” says Mariah Wellman, a University of Utah PhD student who researches influencers. “They sell advice, they sell beliefs, they sell ideologies.”
Among more than 722 million worldwide LinkedIn users, Mr. Smith is part of a select group who amass followers and whose posts get shared widely, offering advice on everything from sales or interview techniques, to tales of perseverance and inspiration.
In the past, it was a lucky few who had large platforms to offer business advice to the masses. But in the social media era, anyone can do it. Influence on LinkedIn is attractive to those hungry to position themselves as business thought leaders. But while good advice can be genuinely helpful, bad advice can waste time and capital or negatively affect a person’s professional decisions.
Mr. Smith says while overly broad statements and fabricated scenarios help influencers go viral, some readers, whether it be because of their youth, lack of corporate experience or desperation for answers, may not grasp that it’s not quality advice. “They’re not in a mental state to pick up on the BS.”
LinkedIn influencers, Ms. Wellman says, are doing a form of what researcher Brooke Erin Duffy calls “aspirational labour:” work that has the potential to create economic and social capital, though they may not see a return. If successful, there is prestige and money-making opportunities like other social media influencers, though in this case it’s selling business coaching or consulting services or hawking self-published books.
That’s why countless blogs – even online courses on LinkedIn’s own learning platform – offer tips on becoming a LinkedIn influencer. LinkedIn publishes an annual Top Voices list and even has an invite-only official LinkedIn Influencer program, which features Canadians like Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains and marketing expert Tara Hunt.
But with so many people angling to gain influence, advice can be secondary to the quest for attention.
While there are regulations on influencer ads in many countries, including the United States and Canada, and misinformation alerts on social media which affect political influencers, Ms. Wellman notes there’s no real management of the quality of advice influencers offer. On LinkedIn, unlike Facebook, there’s not even a reaction button to click to express discontent on a post.
Liz Li, Linkedin’s director of product management, says this is because the company wants to foster “professional and constructive conversations.” And engagement is currently happening in record numbers, including a 60-per-cent year-over-year increase in overall content creation on LinkedIn from March, 2019, to March, 2020.
But Ms. Li doesn’t say how many posts are published a day, or how many followers it takes to get to the site’s top ranks, though some individuals cultivate followings in the hundreds of thousands and millions.
“We encourage our members to focus on creating great content that sparks conversations on the platform, rather than focusing on reaching a specific follower count,” she says.
Erin Blaskie, an early LinkedIn adopter with about 15,000 followers, says it’s been an “arduous process” to increase her community, but one that’s offered long-term rewards, previously helping her market her services at no cost.
“It’s definitely not a flash in the pan like a lot of creators are hoping to obtain today.”
Ms. Blaskie, director of marketing at Ottawa-based productivity startup Fellow, says the intention of posts isn’t rewarded as much as frequency or generating viral content is. Like Mr. Smith she’s seen her own posts stolen by others and shared as their own to drum up engagement, the content’s value secondary.
She says one tell of “clout-chasing” – or deliberately gearing content toward acquiring followers – by people she calls “daily posters” is that they often don’t return to their post to continue the discussion by answering questions or criticisms. That’s also where, in her view, most of the bad advice surfaces.
“And I think, with a lot of the bad advice, it’s toxic to things like culture, it’s toxic to things like workplace balance, it’s toxic for a lot of reasons. But unfortunately, when the ‘daily posters’ are posting that content just to get engagement, they’re not necessarily thinking about the side effects that it might actually have that are more negative.”
But for users discerning enough to recognize bad advice, Mr. Smith says there is valuable information out there from the influencer set.
“I have made money in my career off things that I’ve learned and used off LinkedIn. But it’s from a very small network of people that I trust greatly. I’ve maybe never met them. But because I follow them long enough, I know that they’re the real deal.”
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