Creating an illusion of influence is losing its lustre as reality is not meeting rhetoric and soloists and SMEs are being constantly targeted, writes Sue Parker.
The LinkedIn pie of opportunity is not abating and indeed intensifying with much competitive noise. With over 645M global and 10M Australian members there is much to achieve for individual purpose and business goals.
But with opportunity brings challenges to stand out and grab a chunk of that pie. And for every goal and challenge there are various solutions with accompanying rhetoric and pitches of results. Often solutions end up in the pit of the Cobra Effect (also aligned to perverse incentives in metrics). This is when good intentions ultimately create negative outcomes and unintended consequences. And this is the end result of engagement pods and the way they damage personal brands, results and visibility reach. Non deliverables on pod promises is not the only issue but the unintended consequences that can, and do, result from participation.
The last few years has seen an explosion of disparate engagement pods on the platform. Promises of quick influence, success and a silver bullet to gain visibility has driven the uptake. The debate on the purpose and value of pods is highly divisive with ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps driven by divergent agendas, expertise and perspectives. And the national pods have many far reaching links to global pod groups. I sit firmly in the ‘against’ camp, but understand why they were sought as a solution.
Also to be frank, 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 clever and targeted with compelling and relevant content. Likewise building an engaged and targeted network is critical for grabbing a piece of that pie.
It’s important to also understand the evolving way LinkedIn classify content for reach which 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 retargeting. Training your feed and your target market is a science and art of organic content strategy and market equity.
Let’s dive into what the malarkey is all about behind this not so secret that no one wants to admit to publicly but is passionately promoted on WhatsApp, Slack channels, Facebook and LinkedIn message threads etc.
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 or fee-based. Many in the industry nationally and globally sell them with joining fees and WhatsApp, Facebook or Slack alerts.
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 member’s visibility by engaging with 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 engagement 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, 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 solution of influence ship. So why are pods a bad idea?
Weighing them up
Before I go into a few key specifics I caveat that I have spent over 12 months monitoring pods, the metrics, patterns and content. Similarly, I recognise that pods can receive good 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 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 forced to comment on crap content and did so with ‘good post’ ‘well said, thanks I fully agree’ and the like.
- No real results evidence except some nice relationships formed within the pod itself.
- Many want to leave the pod but fear retribution and bullying and online white-anting.
- For those who pay a fee (yes they are) they are seeing no ROI of $$, let alone time.
- Admitting that there are very few new eyeballs or enquiries from outside the pod
Note: this last point clearly outlines the reason why you build a community not a pod.
Why pods are 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.
People are tired of seeing the patterns of the same old same old. People commenting trite comments on subjects that they would never engage is sheer baloney and everyone is unimpressed. Surely what does a bloke in construction have to contribute to say a women’s personal style business or an engineer have to comment on medical imaging etc.
2. Time and brain sap
Pods can range anywhere from 10 to 100s of 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’. LinkedIn are jacking up on this now and often we are seeing the excessive pod tagging being penalised and prevented (watch this space).
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 impact
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. Sure the initial joining of a pod may have some short wins but long term can suffer.
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 higher, valuable outcomes, new conversations and enquiries will likely be minimal. The pool isn’t adding and catching many new fish.
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 LinkedIn feed is to unfollow members whose engagement is of no value.
I personally have unfollowed 200 connections in the last 6 months (who’s content I generally enjoy reading) because of the inane content they have been forced to engage with (especially fluffy videos). This strategy is very common now but few will admit it to their networks.
The Cobra Effect 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 people and trite nonsense of no personal interest or value to us. Not smart as 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.
Integrity wins in the long game
There is no quick win or diamond 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. Sure encourage support that is relevant and aligned – but for the right reasons.