AJ Wilcox: “On LinkedIn, on the organic side, when you share something is really easy to go viral”

A long-time digital marketer who fell in love with the LinkedIn Ads platform back in 2011, since then, AJ Wilcox has scaled and managed among the world’s most sophisticated accounts worldwide. In 2014, he founded B2Linked.com which specializes in LinkedIn Ads training, consulting, and account management, and became a Certified LinkedIn Ads Partner. He was a speaker at Digitalium 2018 where I had the chance to meet him and ask him some more in-depth question.

 interview by Romanita Oprea

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What made you choose LinkedIn and not another platform, a much more popular one?

Professionally, it has always been important to me. When I was using LinkedIn as a college student, it helped me get my first jobs. I’ve always loved the platform from an organic perspective. I considered myself an SEO guy and I did a lot of Google ads early on. What really endeared me to LinkedIn, specifically, was that I had a really good experience when I launched the campaign and it was a massive success. When you are doing something and you see a lot of success and you are looking around and realize you are doing an amazing work, but something that nobody is talking about, you start to wonder if you found something that is new, a piece of gold that no one has found yet. That is how it was for me.

I took the account of one of the companies that I was working for from two campaigns to 660 over the course or two and a half years. I turned it into LinkedIn’s largest spending account and the whole time I was doing that I was looking around and no one was talking about LinkedIn ads. No one was asking questions about it. No one was finding cool hacks. And, because of all that, I fell in love with the platform and figured out that would be my niche that I should go after.

What are, in your opinion, the best assets that LinkedIn has at this moment and what do you believe it should be improved?

There is so much that it can be improved. LinkedIn, as a platform, has always been behind Facebook or Google. They make 60 percent of their revenue from their recruiter platform. They make 16-17 percent from advertising and they always thought that was a very small part of their business they didn’t have to work very hard. We’re starting to see them really catch up: they are now developing new innovations on the platform several times per quarter, whereas I used to wait a year or two for something new to come out. So it’s definitely happening.

LinkedIn best assets right now, in my opinion are:

  1. Group targeting – I can target you because you are a member of a certain group. And we can’t do that on Facebook, so this is one thing that LinkedIn has and Facebook hasn’t.
  2. Target by company name. Facebook took it away from us for a little while, but they just gave it to us back, but you have to type each one individually and you are limited to only 5000 companies. Whereas on LinkedIn I can take a list up to 300.000 companies, upload them into the platform and then target just specific people at that list of companies. That is really powerful for account based marketing, which is so hot right now.

Are you specialized only on big account or do you also work on smaller accounts? What are the biggest differences between working with a big one versus a small one?

I worked with many of LinkedIn largest customers and also with some of their smallest as well. What we want to do as a company is, no matter who it is, if LinkedIn ads is going to be a big channel for your company, we want to be involved. What we’ve noticed is that the big spenders they have usually had the opportunity to test more things and, even they have a launch that doesn’t go well, I know they are not going to quit, they are going to go back and try again. Whereas a smaller advertiser if there is the first thing they’ve done on the platform, they might come up and say that they cost per lead is too high or that this isn’t probably a good channel for them. I see a lot of the smaller companies quit faster, without continuing the test.

How important is storytelling in LinkedIn right now?

In advertising in general storytelling is very difficult. You have such a small amount of space to share and LinkedIn is no different. Anytime we do a static ad I’ve got 150 characters to start to tell you a story. What that does mean is that in my ad, in 150 characters, I have to convince you to click, and that is not much room to actually tell you a story. So, I don’t think at ads as being the storyteller, I think that the landing page experience that you send them too as being much more important in storytelling.

What would be the key to a successful campaign on LinkedIn?

By far, the most important thing you can do on LinkedIn is think through that content offer to make sure you find something that either solves a major pin point for your audience or satisfies a major curiosity. If you can do one of those two things, it doesn’t matter if it’s a webinar or an in-person event or a checklist or an e-book, it’s going to have a high conversion rate and your campaign is going to be a success.

What are the major mistakes that companies do when they think about putting an ad on LinkedIn?

A lot of companies will decide who they target (let’s say for example: “marketing decision makers”) and then go and say: “I am going to create a marketing campaign that is for all marketers, with titles that are “manager” and above”. And you can do that into one single campaign and have a giant audience. But what it happens is that you have so many people into that audience, from so many levels of seniority that, if that campaign goes well or if it goes poorly, it doesn’t matter, it’s not actionable, because you don’t know what worked and what didn’t.

However, if you take it and make four separate campaigns targeting “marketing managers”, “VPs”, “Directors”, “CMOs”, one is going to perform well, one poorly and a couple are going to be positive or negative, now you know which audiences work and which don’t, which ones to pause and which ones to bid down, which ones to bid up, which audiences to create your content for. One of your biggest mistakes would be not splitting up your audiences, so can’t see who they are.

Have you observed differences in how LinkedIn works in different countries and can you give us some examples? 

LinkedIn was developed by English speakers and that is where they have concentrated all of their efforts. If I am targeting people by job title I can probably hit 40 percent of the people in English speaking markets, but if I target Japanese or German speaking markets or Romanian, I know I am able to reach about 2 percent of that market because LinkedIn hasn’t put a lot of efforts into understanding how to translate job titles, how to translate skills, industries, etc. So, when ether I target a language that is not English I know I am going to have to create two separate campaigns: one targeting the English profiles that are in that location and one, much broader, where I am targeting the local language. And it has to be broader because if LinkedIn cannot figure that out into that audience then I have to make my targeting much larger to try to make sure that I get everyone into that audience.

Anytime you target non English is a challenge. You cannot be as targeted and you have to really spread out your target.

What about different cultures. Do they act differently?

Yes. In the United States if we put out and ad that said: ”here, talk to our high pressure sales rep!” no one is going to click that ad. But in Switzerland, for instance, people were actually ok with getting a sales pitch, cold and no response to it. So I am sure there’s little nuances to every type of culture out there.

How do you see the platform evolving in the next years? Do you see it grow even more? On which segments?

LinkedIn is really hot right now and it continues to get hotter and hotter. I think the reason for it, on the organic side, is that when you share something is really easy to go viral, because every time someone takes a social action (if they hit comment, like or share) that post can be seen by people outside of your network.  We are seeing more and more people that are paying much more attention to LinkedIn and who are getting more business from it, and they are coming to us saying they are doing a great job on the organic side and they know their customers are on LinkedIn and if they can advertise and grow their business even more.

I see a lot of innovation happening. From the users’ side a lot more of adoption, people are spending more time on LinkedIn, and that creates even more interest in advertising as well. We see that by the number of people that are approaching us and want to advertise.

What are the trends right now?

One big trend is that people are starting to spend more time on the platform. We saw back in 2012 that the only reason to go into LinkedIn was to either update your resume every six months or to look for a job. And then in 2013, when they came up with the news feed, you’d see people would come in and starting to engage, they would come to read and comment, but they still would do this only once or twice per month. What we are seeing now is more and more people coming to actually spend time and this is a really cool trend. LinkedIn published a stat that year by year they see 30 percent more interaction on the news feed of the users. I think that we will see more and more people coming and seeing LinkedIn as a platform where they would want to have a conversation on and not just come every 6 months to update their resume.

And at the level of content that brands should push more, where do you see it go? Content with advertising combined or just content, what will it work?

From an organic stand point, I think that companies should be sharing all different levels of interactive content. You’re going to have things like video that are at the top of the funnel, or posts that are somewhat interesting to your demographic and more focused content and content that is going to help people understand more about the industry and how to solve a problem. And you are also going to see the bottom of the funnel where is basically sales pitch.

I think companies should come out with all of those different levels, so that you are always able to answer to whatever concerns or what your prospect is looking for.

From an advertising perspective though, I tell people to go right to the middle. If you ask somebody to go to a blog post, you are going to pay 6-9 dollars to get someone to a blog post. It’s not going to have  a strong call-to-action, so people are not probably going to convert, so having a low conversion rate will mean that you are going to have a thousand dollars cost per lead. And if you go right to the bottom and you give someone a sales pitch you are going to pay the same 6-9 dollars per click ,but no one is going to click that because no one in your audience is ready to convert at that level yet, so your ads are going to shut off at some point. But if you go right to the middle, with a piece of content such as “here is a free checklist or a guide or a webinar”, that type of content is strong enough to get someone to want to give his email address in change for it, but it’s light enough that almost everyone is willing to do that. So that would be my recommendation for the paid side: stick to something that is generally interesting to all of your audience!

Take away tips from AJ:

  • No more wasting impressions on the wrong type of people;
  • For B2B companies LinkedIn is where they can find the high lifetime value clients they are looking for;
  • Use the LinkedIn news feed ads which are best for gated content;
  • The LinkedIn lead generation form ads have high conversion rate;
  • Share to stay on top of your target’s mind not to sell.