LinkedIn Ads is LinkedIn’s advertising platform. I’ve been using LinkedIn Ads on live clients since 2013, and since there aren’t many hands-on reviews from actual marketers, I thought I’d contribute one explaining how best to advertise on LinkedIn.
What is LinkedIn Ads?
LinkedIn Ads is LinkedIn’s proprietary advertising platform. It’s similar to other pay-per-click (PPC) advertising solutions, though you can choose to pay for ads at cost-per-click (CPC) or cost per thousand impression (CPM) rates. By default your ads appear on LinkedIn only, but you can extend them across the Internet via the “LinkedIn Audience Network” — and this is where you can get serious volume.
As with Google Adwords, placement of your ad is not guaranteed. Rather, the cost-per-click price you offer to pay is actually a bid, and LinkedIn decides to give you impressions at that level based on your competition and your clickthrough rate. LinkedIn provides no tools to estimate your expected volume at a given bid level — you just place a bid and see what happens.
You can also pay to promote your “updates” for high social media buzz. This is a possible tactic for launches or pumping up your blog, but I don’t usually use these, so I won’t be reviewing these features.
What are the advantages of LinkedIn Ads?
On initial review, there’s a lot to like in LinkedIn Ads:
- Easy setup. LinkedIn Ads is a completely self-service advertising platform. Setting up your account is easy — all you need is a credit card. You can even reuse your best-performing Google Adwords ads because the text ad format is almost exactly the same.
- Low entry costs. The cost of starting a LinkedIn ads campaign is actually quite low, with a minimum budget per campaign of only $10 per day. Given the low clickthrough and conversion rates I’ve seen (see below), cost-per-click (CPC) pricing is generally the way to go. The minimum allowable cost-per-click is $2, and that appears to be a reasonable price to test at.
- Tons of targeting options. The best thing about LinkedIn is its plethora of audience targeting options. You can target ad campaigns using almost every dimension available in their user profiles, including:
- Geographic (down to major urban areas/MSAs)
- Demographics (age and gender)
- Company (by name, size, or industry)
- Job Title (by keywords in title, function, and seniority level)
- Group membership
- Schools attended
A word of caution: since targeting criteria filter people out very quickly, you can easily over-refine your target audience down to just a few people. When you start I recommend testing out each of these dimensions in its own campaign. Then you can decide which are useful and combine accordingly later. With my current client, for example, targeting by group has worked well, but your mileage may vary. You just have to try them all individually and see what works for you.
- Simple, standard ad formats. Ads are short text ads in exactly the same format as Google Adwords, though with the option of adding a tiny image of 50 by 50 pixels. You can and should test multiple ads at once.
LinkedIn Ads Problems & Observations
Having used LinkedIn Ads for a while, I see that the system has a number of peculiarities that take some getting used to, and which may make scaling use of the system difficult for performance marketers. These are:
- Very low clickthrough rates. You should assume that your clickthrough rates (CTRs) will be low compared to typical display or CPC ads. If you’re good, you might get clickthrough rates on the order of 0.05%. Yes, you read that right: not 5%, but 0.05% — a level that would get you laughed out of other CPC programs. Luckily, LinkedIn recognizes that this is normal, but if you drop below a CTR of 0.025%, you may cease to get anything but a trickle of impressions. So test, test, test, and quickly kill poorly performing ads.
- Images help CTRs. The small, optional picture can help improve CTRs by 25% to 100%. Due to limited ad-level conversion tracking, however (see below), you have to measure manually click-to-conversion rates are high enough to make this increased cost worthwhile.
- Unpredictable exposure. Impression volume is highly dependent on your recent clickthrough rate, particularly after your campaign has been running a few days. Thus if your clickthrough rate is low, your impressions will dwindle to almost nothing. If your CTRs are reasonable, however, you might get ad impressions at a very reasonable effective CPM. Based on my testing, it appears that minor increase in bid prices (from say, the $2.00 minimum up to $2.75) can significantly increase exposure, and also give your a low, targeted CPM you’d be challenged to get anywhere else.
- Poor conversion tracking. Conversion tracking — that is, tracking what success you have — is very limited. The system only tracks “leads” — which in LinkedIn, means when recipients choose to share their contact information with you when they view your landing page. (This information is shared with you by email, and can’t be output to a file.) This lead tracking is collected at the campaign level only, so you can’t tell whether particular ads, audiences, or landing pages perform better. Worse yet, the system provides no internal means to track signups, sales, or any other metrics driven by your advertising. Yes, you could get some of this data by giving every ad and landing page combination a unique destination URL and tracking it via your web analytics package, but that’s a big hassle.
- Limited campaign structure. You can have multiple campaigns, but only one targeting scheme per campaign. As mentioned above, since targeting criteria combine with AND, this means you must use multiple campaigns to test all the different targeting dimensions (Job Title, Group, etc.).
- Difficult testing & optimization. Say your impression volume is low due to poor CTR, but you’ve received some decent leads. With LinkedIn Ads, it’s pretty hard to know how to optimize things next. Did you target the wrong people? Should you bid more? Which ad is actually generating leads? Since lead tracking is so poor, the only way to learn is to clone the campaign and change that one element, running it like an A/B test. This is obviously a very slow and clunky way to test basic campaign elements. For a “growth hacker” (performance marketer) like me, that makes it difficult to know how to scale spend.
- No desktop editing tool. LinkedIn Ads has no editing tools that allows you to quickly copy or manage campaigns, ads, or targeting criteria. Be prepared to spend a lot of time fiddling with the web interface.
- Mysterious ad placement. There is no information on where your ads appear on LinkedIn or the Internet, nor is there anyway to preview what ads look like in context. Also, my experiments show that, at least at lower bid levels, extending your placements to the broader network off LinkedIn doesn’t noticeably expand impressions.
- Slow ad review. Every ad is “reviewed” before it goes live, and that review can take a quite ridiculous 9 to 12 hours, even when you are making minor edits. (This can even take as long as 48 hours, I’ve found.) At least, none of my ads have been rejected, which is nice. Update: in recent times, this has become a lot faster.
LinkedIn Ads & Conversion Rates
So the big question with LinkedIn Ads is: do they actually convert?
Don’t forget: LinkedIn is still a social network
One of the challenges of LinkedIn is the nature of the site itself. People are not on LinkedIn to search for solutions; rather, they are there to network or maybe learn something. So remember that this is not Google Adwords: a more productive call to action may be attending a webinar or downloading a white paper, not trying to close a sale.
Nevertheless, most of us are trying to sell something, as am I. And so far, I’m encountering some qualified success.
Patience, good measurement, and luck are key
What I’ve found is that first you need to spend a few weeks or even months just finding ads with sufficient clickthrough rate and conversion potential that makes scaling worthwhile. My client was lucky — we got at least a few conversions quickly, so we could start making adjustments from there. Once you do have that winning targeting/ad/landing page combo, you can scale easily by raising the bid price. But this smart testing is crucial before you scale.
LinkedIn is tough, however, if you don’t get conversions quickly, or if your ROI is poor. LinkedIn simply doesn’t give you the granular feedback necessary to know what to do next. I’m in that boat with one client of mine, and in several other reviews I’ve read, reviewers report being stuck in this same cycle of low volume and low conversion rates.
Another problem is “lead” quality. As I mentioned above, LinkedIn gives you the oddball option to allow prospects to become a “lead” — that is, they click a checkbox and provide their contact info to you via LinkedIn. So far it looks like this is a poor choice, not because the people themselves aren’t good, but because this conversion experience gives prospects an “out” from learning about your product.
So while with one client I’m getting enough conversions and leads from our campaigns to make the whole thing worthwhile, there is some question about whether this “lead” system is ultimately a good idea for prospect engagement.
My recommendation for new users is to give it your best shot: target your best audience as best you can and use proven ads from your Google Adwords campaigns. Hopefully something will stick and you’ll be able to optimize from there.
LinkedIn Ads Review in a Nutshell
- Great for B2B products if targetable with LinkedIn criteria (like title or industry)
- Easy to set up, cheap to test
- Low cost exposure
- Easy to scale (once you know what you’re doing)
- Unlikely to be good for B2C marketing
- Hard to test and optimize targeting/ads/landing pages
- Poor conversion tracking means doing it yourself
- Iffy lead/conversion quality
The Big Picture
- Worth testing if you have the right (B2B) product
- Expect to do a lot of tracking yourself
- May be a low-cost conversion generator if you figure it out
If you have any experience with LinkedIn Ads, please leave a comment below!
Update 7/23/2015: After an extensive review with their account team, I have verified that LinkedIn Ads remains as lame as ever. The self-service product (which I’m reviewing here) has essentially remained unchanged since 2013. Here’s a nice summary of the problems that they continue to have. While their “EmailIn” email marketing product holds some promise, targeting, tracking, and reporting all remain as limited as what is described above.