Nick Besbeas, Vice President of Marketing at LinkedIn, and Kate Bullis, Managing Partner at SEBA, discuss LinkedIn’s marketing shift to brand awareness, its ‘members first’ focus, and the strategy for engaging members to spread LinkedIn’s story around the world.
Kate Bullis: Nick, please tells us about your background and what led you to your current role as vice president of marketing at LinkedIn.
Nick Besbeas: I’ve been a technology marketer since the early ‘90s. I started at Microsoft in ’93 and after a year in Microsoft’s centralized direct marketing group, I joined MSN when it was still in its formative stages. The opportunity at MSN was perfect for me. It was a new consumer platform where data and insights were an integral part of the way we created value for consumers. Since then, of course, marketing has become more and more analytically oriented and so my quantitative background served me well.
I left Microsoft to do a start-up in 2000. The company was a cloud-based data mining service. In retrospect, it was ahead of its time, but the idea was to take technology that was generally out of reach to most businesses and to deliver them as a cloud-based service. We didn’t use words like cloud and big data at the time, but that is essentially what our company was all about.
I joined Yahoo! to run the performance marketing team in 2005 and my role morphed and evolved over the next five years. I led most of the marketing teams at Yahoo! during the time I was there, including the Consumer Marketing team and that is where I first worked with Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO. Jeff and I had a really great working relationship at Yahoo!, and so when I left the company in 2010 he was one of the people I sought out for advice. Largely by chance, shortly after I reached out to him, the opportunity to run Marketing for LinkedIn opened up and I joined soon after that.
I view my role at LinkedIn as the perfect alignment of a position that fit my background and skill set, one that I personally found very compelling and wanted to be a part of, and one that enabled me to work with people, like Jeff, whom I respected. Perhaps most importantly, I believed that networks were fundamentally changing consumer behavior, and as a marketer, couldn’t think of a more intriguing opportunity. I often tell people that I am not only excited about leading marketing at LinkedIn, but also that I get to help define the future of marketing as a discipline.
Has your role changed since you joined LinkedIn?
When you think about marketing in general, some things have changed significantly and others have remained the same. Today, marketing is more complex than ever. Marketers have a lot more to think about in terms of how we reach consumers and how consumers interact with companies. Social media has emerged as a new way of reaching consumers, and companies and marketers are still figuring out how to use it effectively. Mobile has become a much bigger part of people’s lives, and marketers have to think about how we can communicate in a meaningful and relevant way on the mobile device. From my perspective, these are just the latest changes in what has been wave after wave of disruption for marketers. While all of that change may create confusion about how to go to market, when you go back to the things that are core, the things that have always defined marketing, they remain completely unchanged. These are the pillars of the discipline that have been important in the past and will continue to be important in the future and they are all about putting the customer at the center of everything we do.
All of the things that I have observed about the discipline in general also apply to the situation at LinkedIn. Because LinkedIn is a network, we think a lot about how we can engage with members in a way that’s meaningful. Everything we do revolves around understanding the member’s needs. My focus from day one has been to understand the LinkedIn member, find ways to add value to their experience, and improve upon how we communicate who we are and what we’re all about.
When I started, I focused heavily on product marketing. We invested a lot in making sure that we could take products to market in compelling ways. Over time, my focus has shifted to further strengthening the brand and articulating what we stand for.
“Our expansion and focus from product marketing to brand is a natural evolution in our development as a company and as a marketing team.”
Did you have to make organizational changes to help make that shift from product marketing to brand awareness?
LinkedIn is growing rapidly, so we live with change every day. A lot of opportunities and challenges come with a company that’s growing at the rate that we are. We’ve had to learn, adapt, and change over time. But over the course of the two and a half years that I’ve been here, I would say that it’s not been disruptive change; it’s been an evolution. That’s not to say that we’re not moving aggressively, we are, but there hasn’t been a series of disruptive organizational changes. Our expansion and focus from product marketing to brand is a natural evolution in our development as a company and as a marketing team.
Our mission is to connect the world’s professionals and make them more productive and successful. Our vision is to create economic opportunity for every professional in the world. If you take a step back and think about the company’s purpose through the lens of the member, it is about helping members accomplish all that they set out to do, and in the process, hopefully, transform their lives.
Are the core tenants of the brand any different today than they were when you first joined LinkedIn?
They’re actually exactly the same. They haven’t changed, and that’s one of the things that is so powerful about LinkedIn. We’re incredibly focused as a company. What may appear to people outside the company as change is really just continuing the investment in the core value proposition of LinkedIn. The mission, vision, and story is the same as it was when I joined two and half years ago. What you see is LinkedIn unveiling more products and features to help members benefit from the network. But it’s always been aligned with the direction of the company that was in place long before I arrived.
How are you getting the word out about what the LinkedIn brand is all about?
We’re beginning to tell the story in a variety of ways. I believe every experience that a member or customer has with LinkedIn is another opportunity for us to share our beliefs. You see the narrative showing up more and more in our product marketing, PR, member communications and even touch points through our Sales team. Some of the more obvious examples are things like our 10-year anniversary campaign. Our goal was to thank those who’ve made us successful, namely our members and so we produced a video about them, rather than creating a self-promotional piece, it told stories of what they’ve accomplished and how they are changing the world in their own unique ways. I thought it brought the value of LinkedIn to life in a really compelling way.
How does your company leverage data to create more tailored experiences for your users?
If you talk to employees at LinkedIn, and it doesn’t matter what function they are in, you’ll hear that members are our top priority. We call it being ‘members first’ and it is our number one value as a company. I say that because, while I believe that we use data in very sophisticated ways, we always begin and end with the value that we deliver to our members. Data helps us understand our members and how we can connect them to people who might help them make the most of their professional lives. There are features built into the product that leverage data to deliver value for members. We use these algorithmically-driven experiences to create a superior and relevant experience for members.
Similarly, from a marketing communications perspective, we do a lot to make sure that we get the right communications to people at the right time. Most of that optimization is not something that we spend a lot of time talking about. It’s part of the hard work that goes into driving relevance every day.
But for us, data is more than targeting. We also use it to create value for our members in the form of content. One of the more compelling examples of this is our Year in Review, where we share with members all of the things that people in their network have accomplished in the last year. The review offers updates about people in their network who have changed jobs or taken on more responsibility. We’ve received tons of positive feedback about that campaign. People look forward to receiving it and we know they open and re-open it to explore what’s been happening with their connections.
This year, when we hit the 200-million member mark, we sent a personalized email to our most connected, most endorsed and newest members with a statistic about their activity on LinkedIn and thanked them for helping us to reach the milestone. A member might have received an email, for example, telling them that they were among the 1% most connected on LinkedIn. It was a simple gesture of gratitude, but we received lots of positive feedback from members who were delighted to receive the email. We thus use data to do a lot of heavy lifting to add value through targeting or improved relevance, but we also try to use it in creative ways to surprise and delight our members.
What is the relationship between marketing and IT?
I have deep relationships with our IT group and product and engineering teams. Technology’s a big part of marketing today. It goes back to your question about how marketing has changed. As you think about the evolution of marketing over the last few years, from a technology perspective there has been an amazing amount of change. Think about the systems that were developed in the late 90’s for display media. It was all new, because digital changed the way consumers engaged with media. Later, the world changed again when search emerged as a new channel. Once more, consumer behavior changed and marketing systems needed to be invented to optimize the media. Today yet another fundamental change is required with the advent of social, mobile and content marketing. With each new wave of change, there is an added level of complexity because the previous channels remain important. We still use email, display media, search and now have social, mobile and content marketing added to the mix. So technology is key, and I’ve been investing heavily in it to enable my team. We’re focused on a broad spectrum of systems around social, mobile, content management, data, and marketing automation.
“What may appear to people outside the company as change is really just continuing the investment in the core value proposition of LinkedIn. The mission, vision, and story is the same as it was when I joined two and half years ago.”
How is LinkedIn expanding globally?
LinkedIn is a global network and is highly distributed. We have over 238 million members, and most of them are outside the United States. LinkedIn is currently available in 20 languages. We have offices in 26 countries, so a big part of our focus is around helping professionals expand their network around the world. We’ve been aggressively expanding globally since I joined the company nearly 3 years ago. Furthermore, our fastest growing markets are international.
The marketing team is globally distributed. We have teams deployed in local markets in Europe and Asia to help us execute our strategies in a way that’s locally relevant. It’s an important area investment for us and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
What’s next for LinkedIn in general and your marketing organization specifically?
I’m really excited about the ways that LinkedIn helps member accomplish more in their professional lives. Lots of companies talk about the opportunity to change the world, but I believe LinkedIn is one of the few that does it in such a tangible way and we hear it through member stories all the time. As a marketer, one of the things that I am most excited about is telling that story and I believe we have a really unique opportunity to do it through our members. We’ve gone from a world of three major broadcast networks in the US to a world with networks comprised of millions of people and each one of those people can help tell the story. I think that is really cool, but it is also really challenging.
When I first landed at LinkedIn, I thought a lot about what impact that I could have here. My focus early on was to understand the physics of the business and how I could have the biggest impact on the channels that had the most leverage. I looked at our touch points with members and thought about those who have the most scale. One of our most significant touch points is the product experience itself, so we spent a lot of time thinking about in-product marketing and how to make that more compelling. From my perspective, our most significant channels are the product experience, the communications team, PR, and the members. I really want to engage members in a conversation to hear their stories with the hope that they can help educate and inspire other members. I think this is a really exciting opportunity to add value for our members and to tell our story.
Is the idea that marketing needs to understand and optimize the channels that matter most a lesson that you’ve learned since coming to LinkedIn, or was that something that you brought with you?
It’s something that I brought to LinkedIn, but my experience here has reinforced it and raised my consciousness of it even further. Because this a company that’s growing so fast, there are a lot of exciting opportunities. In that environment, focus is even more important. As a performance marketer, you look for what’s working and double down or invest in whatever is moving the needle. At LinkedIn, that’s certainly the case, but we’re now taking it to the next level. There’s an amazing amount of alignment between teams here and that’s super important because there’s a lot of things we could do that add value, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we should do those things. I like to remind people not to confuse activity with progress. I also talk about local maximums, which is the idea of doing something that appears valuable, but losing sight of even bigger opportunities in the process. A ton of credit for our focus as a marketing organization and company goes to Jeff Weiner, our CEO. As an executive team we are incredibly well aligned because Jeff regularly reinforces our priorities and encourages open communication about them.
“We thus use data to do a lot of heavy lifting to add value through targeting or improved relevance, but we also try to use it in creative ways to surprise and delight our members.”
What lessons have you learned at LinkedIn?
Our first principle is ‘members first.’ Marketers talk about that all the time, but one of the things that I value here is that this is a company that does more than just talk about it, we are incredibly focused on putting our members first. It’s really powerful. It gives Marketing an amazing platform to help bring the voice of members into the company to help shape strategy. So one of the lessons learned is the power of being customer-focused.
I also think our approach to bringing the voice of the member in to the company is working really well. I am a big believer in people from all corners of the organization participating in the process. By that I mean, having direct interaction with the member. When I talk about our approach to bringing the voice of the member in to LinkedIn, I often quote a Chinese proverb that says “tell me and I will forget, show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand”. The more that we can engage our employees, product developers, and engineering team in a direct dialogue with our members, the more effective the outcome and so we have put processes in place to give them the opportunity to interact directly. It’s super powerful.
I would say the second lesson learned is the power of participation and collaboration. Interestingly enough, it’s also one of the key value propositions for LinkedIn as a professional network.
The third lesson learned revolves around thinking outside the box. As a company, LinkedIn has a strong culture around innovation. Every month we have what we call an “in-day”, that is a day that you can dedicate to anything you deem important. You can work on something you care about, participate in a hack, or spend time giving something back. Those moments when we break away from the daily grind and think outside the box are incredibly valuable. Lots of great ideas come in unexpected ways. It’s important to create opportunities for people to think out of the box and to do things in a more innovative way.
What are you most proud of at LinkedIn?
Without a doubt it is my team. I’ve assembled a world-class marketing team, and my proudest moments come from all of their wins along the way. Unfortunately, the time when most people usually take a step back to reflect on your work is when you’re leaving an organization. I’m trying not to repeat that mistake. I’m really proud of the team that I have here. I try to take time to express gratitude whenever I can because people work incredibly hard here and they’re doing amazing work everyday.
Is there anything else that you want to share about your work at LinkedIn?
What I think most about is our purpose. I joined LinkedIn in large part because I could connect to what it was all about as a company. For me, it’s 100 percent authentic. I feel right being part of a company that’s doing what LinkedIn is doing. I use the product every day. I did before I joined the company. I feel passionate about the impact that we can have on the world. If you think about our mission and vision, they’re pretty unselfish. We’re trying to help people accomplish more in their lives. It’s not about our product or about more people using our product. It’s about helping our members change the world. It feels really good to be a part of an organization like that.
Nick Besbeas has over 20 years of experience in business strategy, consumer marketing and business-to-business marketing. He has led marketing organizations at some of the world’s foremost consumer Internet brands, as well as successful start-ups.
Nick joined LinkedIn, the web’s largest and most powerful professional network, in January 2011 as Vice President of Marketing. He drives all aspects of marketing, spanning dozens of offices across the globe.
Prior to joining LinkedIn, Nick was Senior Vice President of Marketing for Yahoo! Inc., one of the most popular starting points on the Internet. In this role, Nick oversaw Marketing, Insights and Customer Care for all of Yahoo!’s consumer products and services.
In 2000, Nick co-founded digiMine Inc. (now AudienceScience) and served as Chief Strategy Officer until 2005, running sales, marketing and account management. The company is a global leader in behavioral targeting and attracted top media companies as clients under Nick’s leadership.
From 1993 to 2000, Nick established and led the Direct Marketing and Business Intelligence group at Microsoft, MSN. His pioneering work in MSN defined standards for capturing, tracking and applying information about customers’ behavior online. During his tenure at Microsoft, he also served in leadership roles in Marketing and the Business Productivity Group. Prior to Microsoft, Nick held leadership roles at Quill Corporation (a subsidiary of Staples) and The Signature Group.
As a co-founder and Partner at SEBA International, Kate manages SEBA’s Go To Market Practice which specializes in placing Marketing, Sales and Strategy executives across the technology sector. Kate has spent almost two decades serving Fortune 500 technology clients as well as start-ups in this capacity, leading assignments in digital, storage, communications, application, SaaS and security industries.
Beginning her career specializing in human resources search work, Kate later moved to the recruitment of market research, quantitative analysis, and brand management executives. Before founding SEBA, Kate was Vice President in the Strategy and Finance Practice at A-L Associates. There, she focused on strategy, corporate development, and joint venture search work for Technology, Financial Services and Manufacturing clients. She received her BA cum laude from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Kate is a Board Member of the Americas Council for the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) and chairs the Association’s Specialty Firm Committee as well. She is a member of Watermark, The National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), the Churchill Club and Women in Technology International (WITI). Kate is the founder and host of The Silicon Valley CMO Supper Club with active CMO members from companies such as Google, Cisco, PayPal, DocuSign and LinkedIn. Kate is also a founder of The PART, a not-for-profit alumni organization that grants college scholarships to students who plan to pursue the arts and theater.
A strong advocate for executive diversity in the technology industry, Kate often speaks on how corporations can acquire and retain diverse teams and champions the importance of personal branding for career development.