Situation Analysis: LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network with over 120 million members, was poised to begin trading shares on the New York Stock Exchange in May 2011. Following the economic downturn and subsequent slow recovery, investors were anxious for the next major company to invigorate the IPO market. LinkedIn was the first U.S. social network to go public, making this the most highly-anticipated IPO of 2011. Media, analysts and the public viewed it as a bellwether for the viability of other social networks as public businesses. This instigated a wave of speculation around LinkedIn’s valuation, as analysts believed it was releasing years of pent-up demand.
LinkedIn needed a careful communications strategy that would articulate the company’s value proposition and clearly demonstrate its business model. As it approached its IPO, strict SEC media communications limitations delineated a narrow set of opportunities to communicate LinkedIn’s business strategy and value. Further, LinkedIn had to communicate with an entirely new audience, the investor community, which did not have a deep understanding of its business. Partnering with its corporate communications agency, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, LinkedIn set out to ensure that, at its debut, the right audiences would understand, promote and act on the company’s strengths.
Objectives: LinkedIn sought to lay a strong foundation of understanding with various audiences, particularly to further public interest in investing in the growth of a company that was already providing enormous value to more than 90 million professionals around the world. LinkedIn and H+K agreed on the need to educate investors, analysts and financial media, as the primary audiences, about its distinct business model, long-term strategy and plan for execution. With high expectations for the performance of LinkedIn’s stock in its debut and with speculation arising that LinkedIn’s valuation was indicative of another dot-com bubble, its corporate communication team developed a strategy to:
• Introduce LinkedIn to a new set of financial audiences and financial media as a public company and lay foundational messaging for future coverage and discussion of the company.
• Clearly define LinkedIn’s business model, value proposition and focus on long-term execution among key stakeholders to drive deeper understanding of LinkedIn’s growth potential.
Target/Audience Analysis: Since its founding in 2003, LinkedIn was most closely followed by select business media focused on technology start-ups, investment and the trend of social networking; it also drew coverage from technology, digital media, and social networking-dedicated blogs that documented the evolution of this industry. These media were deeply attuned to the company’s history, products and milestones and would continue to be critical as LinkedIn approach this significant corporate milestone.
Additionally, H+K understood that LinkedIn, as a public company, would be accountable to a whole new audience: investors. A new flock of financial media began to follow the company – media who had less familiarity with the company and were more likely to focus on LinkedIn’s ability to prove its valuation and deliver as a business. Moreover, financial and industry analysts added an additional layer of scrutiny on LinkedIn’s business model. With these media and analysts serving partly as the gateway to the new public investor audience, we worked quickly to identify influencers and set in motion the best plan to engage them.
Research/Planning: Once LinkedIn had filed its S-1 registration, a wave of new media and third-party commentators including analysts and investors began to speculate on the company’s prospects for a public offering, evaluating its business model, financials, and risk factors. H+K tracked coverage on a daily basis and maintained a comprehensive grid documenting these new influencers to continually evaluate media and investment community sentiment as it developed messaging and strategy for its listing day media interviews.
Informed by this research, H+K prioritized the need to ensure that the market understood LinkedIn’s business model and viability so its debut would not be overshadowed by commentary around its valuation. LinkedIn needed to underscore its three distinct revenue streams: hiring solutions (tools for recruiters), marketing solutions (providing brand presence tools and advertising for businesses), and premium subscriptions (expanded, exclusive features for individual professionals). Under increased scrutiny, the company further refined its corporate messaging and narrative for this new period of growth, including how it intended to reinvest in the company after its public offering based on its future goals.
Strategy: H+K”s media strategy capitalized on heightened public interest in the company and effectively emphasize its real value. Due to strict SEC guidelines, the IPO debut represented the only window in which a LinkedIn executive would be free to speak about the company’s business strategy and prospects since LinkedIn initially signaled its plans for a public offering.
With a high demand for CEO media interviews, and a limited window of availability for briefings on-site at the NYSE, the team decided to identify a limited number of journalists for interviews while also ensuring that all major influencers were given an opportunity to engage with LinkedIn’s CEO. The team understood the importance of establishing strong initial relationships with these reporters as a baseline for future coverage that would influence the broader investment community and private investors.
Ongoing research and coverage monitoring indicated that investors and analysts were hopeful about LinkedIn’s prospects as a business, but several maintained skepticism about its high valuation. Noting this, LinkedIn and H+K continually refined briefing and messaging materials as it prepared CEO Jeff Weiner to establish the company’s identity in his listing day media interviews.
Execution/tactics: Implementation of the team’s strategy led to briefings with top-tier wire and business press reporters including Reuters, Financial Times, New York Times, Associated Press, and Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones. The team also secured live broadcast interviews for the company’s CEO with CNBC, Bloomberg TV, and CNN — an uncommon opportunity given fierce competition between the networks.
In advance of listing day:
• H+K maintained an ongoing spreadsheet capturing all inbound media inquiries, all journalists who had covered milestones leading to listing day, and all third-party commentators who shared opinions with media.
• In the two weeks before listing day, H+K delivered a comprehensive twice-daily media report and coverage analysis outlining LinkedIn, competitor and industry news that could affect messaging and potentially be brought into conversation in listing day interviews.
During LinkedIn’s New York Stock Exchange debut on May 19, 2011:
• H+K joined LinkedIn communications team members on-site at the NYSE to guide the tight schedule of high-profile interviews.
• Remotely, additional team members provided real-time close media monitoring of news and ongoing counsel regarding perception shifts and key areas to address.
• The remote H+K team also supported ongoing coordination with reporters regarding their briefings and fact confirmation.
Results: LinkedIn closed listing day at more than double its IPO price. Media around the world reported the news; 500 original articles appeared with 60+ broadcast segments in the top 25 media markets alone and 8,000+ social media updates.
The debut signaled overwhelming investor confidence in the company’s prospects, landing LinkedIn on the cover of major newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle. Many media interpreted investor demand as indicative of the value of social media companies and the potential to jumpstart interest in Web 2.0 investments—confirming the viability of LinkedIn’s business model.
CEO Jeff Weiner’s comments were featured widely in such media as the Financial Times, The New York Times, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal, with strong message pull-through emphasizing LinkedIn’s value as a business and focus on long-term execution.
LinkedIn’s strong debut drew comparisons to Google’s 2004 IPO from outlets such as the Associated Press, CNN, and the Washington Post, placing LinkedIn squarely in the peer set of major technology companies with the potential to transform society. CFO Steve Sordello noted in LinkedIn’s first earnings announcement as a public company that the IPO also accelerated interest in the social network: Member growth increased 61% after the listing.