This article was first published in Smart Company in February 2019. Why LinkedIn engagement pods are a bad idea is critical to understand in 2020 as more people realise the opportunities of LinkedIn. So I have updated the article including extra information, member feedback and my Ticker TV interview.
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 18 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.
LinkedIn now has 660 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.”
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.
How LinkedIn classifies content
Classifying content for reach passes through a complex system. The classification process takes the content quality 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 re targeting. Training your feed and your target market is a science and art of organic content strategy and market equity.
What is a LinkedIn 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.
During 2019 there was an explosion of Lempods and automated Pod to Pod gaming systems. What this means is that comments and likes are pre-programmed Pod to Pod. You can see the patterns here in Australia with large engagement from 90% overseas profiles with NO relevance to the Australian member or industry, simply the Pod connection. It is both being utilised here within Australia and globally. It often just looks like vacuous back slapping commentary.
Large automated Lempod and Pod to Pod systems are often part of database selling activities and other global data mining businesses. They have a MLM/Pyramid scheme methodology to recruit new members and sell hacking and follower systems and new pod activity.
Chicago based digital data expert April Hall has recorded an outstanding video explaining how MLM system Pods operate.
The comments are all pre-programmed and set to align to the pods. VA’s are not involved as often thought its purely AI driven. And Pods are often part of a growth hacking social marketing or LinkedIn service businesses.
Whether or how a manual Pod is built, expectations vary from strict army like enforcement to being more relaxed. Most have disparate memberships without real any valued 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.
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.
Difference between a Community Groups vs Engagement Pods
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 occurring. 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?
To pod or not to pod – an ethical marketing question!
Before I go into a few key specifics I caveat that I have spent 18 months monitoring pods, the metrics, patterns and content. Similarly, I recognise that pods can receive solid 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.
Each week I receive feedback about Pods (the manual ones) . Many have bought either $$$ &/or wasted time in the echo-chamber rabbit hole of Pods and want out. The promise of big shiny results is the hook. The golden gate of success is the message. Feedback includes:
- I did get good reach initially but it didn’t result in new business or relevant new connections.
- I’m very uncomfortable with the the lack of authenticity and I feel so pressured
- It has some value with new member relationships, but no ROI evidence. Note: this clearly outlines the reason why you build a community — not a pod.
- The time it takes to post is ridiculous.
- I have no interest in members topics or value to add. Its a brain drain and feels strange to comment on things that I would never normally engage with.
- People are questioning my networks.
- The money spent into these groups really has been a waste mostly
- I’m tired of seeing all the back patting as its not authentic
So why are LinkedIn Engagement 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.
Note during the last 6 months of 2019 there is clear evidence of a decline in manual Pod metrics. The automated/click farm/Lempod activity is just programmed for 100 & 1000s. Most of the new uptake in Australia in 2019 was in manual paid and unpaid Pods.
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 – Perverse Metrics
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 LinkedIn feed is to Unfollow members whose engagement is of no value.
I personally have Unfollowed 100s of connections in 2019 and continuing to do so. This has peeved me off as the members content I generally like. BUT because of their Pod activity the News Feed is chocka full of inane content they have been forced to engage with and This strategy is commonplace now to clean up and Tailor your LinkedIn feed. We all know that what we see in our Feed we can control to a certain extent. .
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.
Organic & Value Strategy for 2020
There is no silver bullet on LinkedIn unfortunately. Integrity, authenticity and real business value takes time and is best served on a plate of organic strategy and ethics.
Be powerful, be unique, be clever but don’t try and game — as, seriously, LinkedIn’s machine learning and engineering is smarter than you think.
More information on my TV interview from late 2019: