Increasing reach and visibility to grow influence is the name of the game on LinkedIn. With over 10 million Australian members the value proposition and business potential is well acknowledged. Hence the ardent scramble to grab a piece of the very juicy LinkedIn pie of opportunity.
But over the last 12 months, these scrambles have manifested in an explosion of disparate engagement pods on the platform. Promises of silver bullets of success have driven the uptake. The debate on the purpose and value of pods is divisive with ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps driven by divergent agenda’s, expertise and perspectives. I sit firmly in the ‘against’ camp, but understand why a silver bullet is sought.
Melonie Dodaro is recognised as one of the world’s leading LinkedIn authorities and in-demand speakers. Her book LinkedIn Unlocked is an international bestseller in the USA, Canada, the UK, Germany, France, Brazil and Australia. In a recent online interview she gave me permission to publish the following quote on her behalf:
“I find LinkedIn engagement pods to be a desperate ploy for visibility. If your post cannot get traction on its own (organically) then you should probably start with a new content strategy!”
LinkedIn now has 610 million global members raising the competition for brand authority and content visibility. But LinkedIn hasn’t made life easy with ongoing platform changes and format and feed algorithm weighting challenges. Harnessing the platform’s potential necessitates that members be adroit, curate compelling relevant content with purposeful and powerful connection and marketing strategies.
Further, to LinkedIn’s credit, it is re-dressing unfair influencer feed advantages with their creator side optimisation program. Understanding the impact of perverse incentives in metrics and marketing is important in the debate and puzzle of engagement pods. Essentially: “What is considered a great idea may not only turn out to be a bad idea but can create even more problems.”
Classifying content for reach passes through a complex system. The classification process takes the process along automation to human views of spam, low and good quality. It is this system that engagement pods attempt to manipulate and game.
The algorithms are intuitive and machine-learning driven, showing more of what you have engaged with and dwelled upon, similar to programmatic advertising and retargeting. Training your feed and your target market is a science and art of organic content strategy and market equity.
What is an engagement pod?
A ‘pod’ is a group of LinkedIn members who join together to game and hack the LinkedIn algorithm to increase visibility and reach. The motivation is to grow influence and reach and by virtue generate business and leads. They may be free (mostly) or fee-based and anyone can create them. Or they may be part of a growth hacking business with pods as a cornerstone of client fee tactics. Rules and expectations vary from strict army like enforcement to being more relaxed. Most have disparate memberships without much target market synchronicity.
The expectation is to boost members visibility by engaging on everyone’s content within a designated period (generally one to three hours). The punishment and derision for not supporting each and every time can be unpleasant.
Instagram has seen engagements pods for some time and they are notorious for fake engagement, inauthentic posts, influencer inducements, paid followers and low-quality content that gains massive and vacuous engagement. Is LinkedIn starting to see this type of tactic? Yes. And it’s having a perverse incentive impact which many are not aware of.
These types of pods are often marketed as ‘accountability groups’ or ‘likeminded support networks’. This is not quite accurate at best and secret duplicity at worst.
There is a big difference between pods and aligned LinkedIn Groups supporting and sharing and high-value private-message threads. And the value of social communities on and off LinkedIn is an important discussion. But pods are not communities per se. The narrative often from the ‘for’ camp and owners is that pods simply support each other so what is the harm. And while that may be quite fair, the reality is that if you are on LinkedIn to grow your business harm can and is occuring. Engagement pods are not designed for community engagement but pure and simple reach and algorithm hacking. So let’s call the elephant out in the room, okay?
Now it is illogical to lump every pod in the same boat, but by gee, the vast majority do fall into the desperate ploy ship. So why are pods a bad idea?
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To pod or not to pod
Before I go into a few key specifics I caveat that I have spent 12 months monitoring pods, the metrics, patterns and content. Similarly, I recognise that pods can receive huge initial engagement. But vanity metrics and resultant hollow self-importance via hacking is not always sustainable. I have never been part of one but have been invited to many.
I have received a lot of feedback from current and past pod members in my network that:
- It often improves their reach and visibility but they don’t believe it has created any real new business;
- They left as they were uncomfortable with the lack of authenticity and/or they felt bullied; and
- They see it has value, but no real evidence except nice relationships formed within the pod itself.
Note: this last point clearly outlines the reason why you build a community — not a pod.
So why are pods a bad idea?
1. Trust and personal brand erosion
Given that most pods have disparate memberships, trust can be eroded when content engagement is inauthentic and not on brand or relevance. It’s so obvious that it is enforced. How can you trust people who clearly are engaging because they ‘have to’?
Sycophantic behaviour is easily identified and it is particularly concerning to see highly credentialed industry professionals commenting on vacuous and irrelevant content to their expertise. People watch how others behave and engage and who they seemingly endorse. Your personal brand also has a bearing on who you support.
2. Time suck
Pods can range anywhere from 10 to 100 members. And many people have joined several. You don’t need a mathematics degree to add the minutes and hours up. They are huge — and especially if you give valued consideration to the engagement.
And therein is why you see a plethora of ‘great post, love it’, ‘you are amazing, so agree’ comments.
And further the engagement of external profile managers overseas — keeping up with the groundswell and initial piece is too time-consuming.
3. User agreement
LinkedIn frowns upon pods and considers them in violation of 8.2.q of the user agreement, prohibiting ‘gaming algorithms’.
Pod members who also use automation plug-in tools and overseas third-party management can be at particular risk for profile and content penalisation and investigation.
4. Algorithm feed demotion
Remember that the algorithm is intuitive so it’s becoming evident that content which doesn’t gain additional engagement outside of the pod is starting to be penalised over time. If pod members’ own contacts see the content in their feed and don’t engage (because they don’t find it valuable) the algorithms start to demote all future content. So the same eyes keep seeing the same people’s posts.
5. Niche networks
Are the networks in your pod really aligned to your target market and ideal client? If not, while vanity metrics may be high, valuable outcomes — conversions and enquiries — will likely be minimal.
6. Unfollowing contacts
Your feed is representative of the content you engage and those of your networks. So a strategy which has become critical to cleaning up your feed is to unfollow members whose engagement is of no value.
I personally have unfollowed 200 connections in the last six months (whose content I generally enjoy reading) because of the inane content they have been forced to engage with (especially fluffy videos). This strategy is commonplace now.
The perverse incentive is that we don’t get to see the content of the people we really want to see because they are part of huge pods of no personal interest or value to us. Not good — you lose brand visibility via association!
7. Content quality control
As all posts are deemed wonderful and amazing without real feed testing (in other words, organic non-enforced engagement) quality control is compromised. Testing of content that impacts your audience is essential for a LinkedIn marketing strategy. But a pod will always love it and rarely have the time nor willingness to say something sucked.
Games aren’t fun
There is no silver bullet on LinkedIn unfortunately, despite the ploys, plug-ins and range of hacks touted.
Integrity, authenticity and real business value takes time and is best served on a plate of organic strategy.
Be strategic, be unique, be clever but don’t try and game — as, seriously, LinkedIn’s machine learning and engineering is smarter than you think.
The benefits of creating consistent and valued content and marketing campaign are for the taking.