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THINK "influencer", and what may come to mind are funky-haired, doe-eyed fashion bloggers and tempting food shots by food bloggers.
But these days, online influencers have evolved beyond food/fashion blogger types whose success seems to hinge solely on their ability to take flattering selfie shots or declare food to be "super yummy".
Influencers of a more serious variety have emerged, with names such as Piyush Gupta, DBS Bank group CEO, and Wendy Lim, Manulife Asset Management's CEO and executive director. They have made the list of LinkedIn Power Profiles, alongside tech startup owners and experts such as Hari Krishnan, CEO of PropertyGuru Group, Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder of Grab, and Roy Teo, director of FinTech & Innovation Group at the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
The LinkedIn Power Profiles, which has had three editions in Singapore (2013, 2015 and 2016), features business leaders and other professionals who have built a strong presence on LinkedIn. The number of LinkedIn Power Profiles vary from year to year.
LinkedIn, of course, bills itself as the world's largest professional network. It is a social networking site that is geared more towards professionals compared to its social network peers like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Your LinkedIn profile, for instance, is your CV. Instead of adding "friends" on the platform, you make "connections". And more importantly, the type of content people post and write about on LinkedIn is often related to their jobs - this includes thought leadership pieces, hiring practices and insights on industry trends.
The social network, which was recently acquired by Microsoft for US$26 billion, now has more than one million members in Singapore, where its Asia headquarters sits. Since launching its Singapore office in May 2011, LinkedIn has seen its member base in the Asia-Pacific balloon from 18 million to 105 million today. Globally, LinkedIn has 467 million members across 200 countries and territories.
LinkedIn Power Profiles are awarded to those who have significant engagement levels, which are measured through data such as profile views, according to Olivier Legrand, managing director for the Asia-Pacific and Japan, LinkedIn.
"We also look at top profiles from various industry verticals including finance, technology, as well as marketing and advertising," Mr Legrand says. Naturally, LinkedIn employees are excluded from the list.
Many of these Power Profiles also boast impressive follower counts. Mr Gupta, for instance, has around 68,000 followers on his LinkedIn profile, while Neal Cross, chief innovation officer at DBS Bank, has nearly 13,000 followers and Jean-Michel Wu, APAC CEO at search agency Grace Blue Partnership, has more than 17,000. But is being a LinkedIn Power Profile all that it is cracked up to be? What does it even mean to be one anyway?
Mr Wu, who earned his stripes managing the human resources (HR) departments at Ogilvy & Mather and McCann Worldgroup and leading talent acquisition at WPP, says: "I don't see this Power Profile thing as an accomplishment or an award. I do think it's really just the fact that people are reaching out to people like me so they can connect with me… LinkedIn is a very good tool - I am obviously honoured by LinkedIn wanting to do that with me - but I certainly haven't gone out of my way to get there."
"There's pride in it," Damien Cummings offers. Mr Cummings was global head of digital marketing at Standard Chartered Bank at the time of LinkedIn Power Profiles 2016 Singapore's release. "I'm happy to have been a LinkedIn Power Profile for the last several years but I also know that it's not based on real achievements or changing the world for the better."
"It's an acknowledgement that I have a lot of LinkedIn connections and a lot of people view my LinkedIn profile," adds Mr Cummings, who has more than 12,000 followers on LinkedIn. "I love it because it means that I have a platform for the sharing of ideas, and a pretty large audience for doing it."
Ask them what tangible benefits their businesses get from establishing a strong following on LinkedIn, however, and you'd be hard-pressed to get a, well, tangible answer. "I think it's hard to measure how my personal brand has contributed to the bank's brand value. More importantly, I think we were able to attract some real talents and partners who want to work with us, in shaping the future of banking," says DBS's Mr Cross.
"Check out LinkedIn's new skill"
But that isn't to say there is absolutely no point in building up a strong online presence.
"There are a few ways through which having your CEO visible online benefits the company," says Mr Krishnan, CEO of PropertyGuru Group. "Firstly, we are in a talent economy, where having the best talent will allow us to (differentiate ourselves) from the competition and deliver against our company vision and mission."
Secondly, LinkedIn gives him the opportunity to share his thoughts with partners and clients. This allows them "to assess how well the market is receiving our opinions," he reckons.
"Finally, potential investors want to see where leadership is taking this company," Mr Krishnan says. "My views give them one data point on the leadership views. As an employee of PropertyGuru, I must always remember that my views are both viewed as my own and that of the CEO of this market-leading organisation."
For Janice Chan, who made the cut in 2015 when she was senior director of digital marketing at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, LinkedIn has been valuable in helping her connect with people who might provide new business opportunities.
"I believe Linkedin provides a powerful networking tool for individuals and not just for businesses or sales people," says Ms Chan, who now works as a consultant in digital marketing.
Then there is Chris Reed, who found such great success with LinkedIn he started up his own LinkedIn marketing company, which is now listed on the Nasdaq. Mr Reed's account has been awarded the LinkedIn Power Profile badge for all three years it's been around. He currently has more than 54,000 followers on LinkedIn.
His love affair with LinkedIn started when he first arrived in Asia eight years ago. It was through networking on LinkedIn that he managed to get his first job, as well as his second and third.
As he received the LinkedIn Power Profile award year after year, people started approaching him, asking to be trained in marketing themselves and their businesses on LinkedIn. That's when he knew there was potential for a business.
"There was clearly not only an interest in how LinkedIn works but a business in terms of a financial model that people were willing to pay for someone else to manage their LinkedIn presence," Mr Reed explains. "Once I started it and actually started marketing it, the business came flooding in."
Not just a "want" ad
It may sound pretty foreign to those of us unfamiliar with the platform and who think of LinkedIn as primarily a recruitment tool - which is a misconception many people have. But while the social network can be effective for job recruitment, there is a lot more to it.
"It used to be (mainly a job-hunting social network); it's no longer just that," Mr Reed says. "Now it's very much about your personal brand, your employer brand, your thought leadership strategy, your content marketing strategy and your sales and marketing lead-generation platform."
"I've never thought about LinkedIn as a job-hunting network or an enhanced CV," says Mr Cummings. "It's true that recruiters use it to reach out to candidates, but it's a network platform and a great way to share and discuss ideas and content."
"I believe we need to bust the idea that being on LinkedIn is about looking for a job. It's not. But it can be an amazing way to enhance your employer brand by allowing your staff to share ideas and advocate on behalf of the company you work for," he adds.
Unfortunately, not everyone thinks the same way. While Mr Cummings enjoys the benefits of having a strong LinkedIn profile, he has also had first-hand experience with some of the downsides. "Having an industry profile is very threatening to a lot of large companies," Mr Cummings says. "Employee policies around use of social media, engagement with the media and generally having an opinion have not caught up with technology. It's caused a lot of problems in traditional companies that are not used to dealing with an employee that has a voice."
"Many large corporations want to maintain a carefully crafted message about what they do, or perceive someone who is speaking on social media channels as someone they can't control," he adds. "It's often motivated by fear. Fear from line managers that they can't control their staff, or that socially engaged staff are somehow more focused on their personal brand than their job."
Having a Power Profile doesn't make you immune to the risks that other employees face either. In January this year, Mr Cummings revealed that his position at Standard Chartered had been made redundant in an article published on - where else - LinkedIn. He now runs Peoplewave, his own HR technology business that aims to transform HR practices in companies.
Still, he maintains that business leaders should have an online presence - even if they aren't in the digital business.
"It's absolutely critical to be on LinkedIn. As an employer branding tool it's the best there is. There's a saying that people 'don't leave companies, they leave managers' and increasingly people are opting to work for managers and not just companies," he said. "People are more than their job title. LinkedIn gives you a chance to express this. This is a very attractive proposition to partners, employees and customers."
In fact, all six Power Profiles individuals who were interviewed for this article share those sentiments. "We live in the digital age. This is where everybody spends their time and learns about people, companies, products and services. Independent of what industry we work in, having an online presence is critical for business leaders today," PropertyGuru's Mr Krishnan says.
Of course, not everyone on LinkedIn can become an influencer, though it is markedly easier now compared to the days of just books, magazines, radio segments and seminars.
After all, the idea of "business influencers" isn't new. Thought leadership existed even before LinkedIn was a budding idea in founder Reid Hoffman's head. Even so, the road to being a thought leader back then was a lot more of a narrow one.
Now, however, "social media grants anyone the power to be an influencer", Mr Cross says. And this comes with pros and cons. In the past, only the best in the industry "were given the opportunity to have a voice", but it also meant a limited range of voices, he adds.
On the flip side, we now get a wider spread of voices on platforms such as LinkedIn, but that also means we have to be more discerning about what we read. Mr Wu says: "The kind of information people post - they don't really spend that much time curating it, or working so much on it. That's just the general trend we have on social media. It includes Facebook, LinkedIn, all types of stuff, where I think there is the dumbing down effect of what people write."
"It's easier now to grow into a thought leader - some people are thought leaders. But it's the proof in the pudding rather than the actual medium itself," he said.
Putting the power in your profile
How then do you put the power in your LinkedIn profile?
It boils down to three things: diligence, authenticity and professionalism.
"First, take it seriously. It's not an activity limited to millennials or to the tech-savvy," Mr Cummings recommends. "It's your life, your brand and an expression of who you are. I strongly advise people to set aside time to ensure all your key social media profiles are up-to-date and represent who you are and what you want to say."
Grace Blue Partnership's Mr Wu says: "I think you do need to set out what you want to do, at least try to sense that you're going in a direction… (You need to also) be honest, be authentic. If you're going to write anything, better to just be honest about it."
If you are looking to reach out to the younger generation, Mr Cross from DBS offers some advice: "The next generation, post-millennials, are not as impressed with big brands. They want to hear more of the human side of the business. Organisations can no longer rely on their brand name alone, they need to do more to engage with their audience."
And lastly, it pays to be patient. Mr Krishnan says: "I view my relationship with social and professional networks like bank accounts. I first need to make deposits, and then I earn the right to make withdrawals. So you need to take a longer-term view on the "return" you will get - there are very few short-term tactics that work on these platforms."
"We all have the same platform and format on LinkedIn. Those that put effort into it and share/create relevant content and make an effort will stand out and succeed at the expense of those that don't - it's up to you!"
"I think you do need to set out what you want to do, at least try to sense that you're going in a direction. This makes it easier for the kind of people you are attracting to connect with on LinkedIn… (You need to also) be honest, be authentic. If you're going to write anything, better to just be honest about it."
"The next generation, post-millennials, are not as impressed with big brands. They want to hear more of the human side of the business. Organisations can no longer rely on their brand name alone, they need to do more to engage with their audience."
Standard Chartered Bank*
"A lot of people want to hear your professional opinion. I've found that people are desperate to understand what best practice looks like… You can learn something valuable from anyone, and others want to learn from you. So start sharing your ideas and content you believe in."
"I view my relationship with social and professional networks like bank accounts. I first need to make deposits, and then I earn the right to make withdrawals. So you need to take a longer-term view on the 'return' you will get - there are very few short-term tactics that work on these platforms."
Starwood Hotels & Resorts*
"Stay active while being reactive - dip your toes in by just sharing interesting articles or content that you discover. This is the best way to keep your profile active so that it does not look like an inactive page. Also it is a way to demonstrate your perspective to your network."
*At the time of being awarded a LinkedIn Power Profile
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