You know that feeling the night before something special? Christmas. Your birthday. A possible snow day. Vacation.
It’s hard to sleep, right?
That’s how I felt the night before getting beta access to LinkedIn’s thought leader ads, which officially launched to all marketers in June 2023.
I remember that day fondly. I sprung out of bed, made a beeline for my workspace, and did what any B2B marketer would do: start poking around. One thing led to another, and before long, I had an experiment live. (Results in a bit.)
My goal? See if thought leader ads engaged Metadata’s target audience for a better price than video or single image ads. Spoiler: They did. But that’s only one part of the story.
For some context, LinkedIn thought leader ads let B2B marketers promote employee posts from their company’s page via Campaign Manager. The ad format gives marketers an authentic way to increase engagement and brand awareness about their company, industry, product, and more.
Note: Marketers can only promote posts from verified employees who have the company listed as an active and current job in their profile.
Here’s an example. I promoted this very normal, human post from my teammate, Mark:
This isn’t the first time LinkedIn’s made waves. Back in 2005, the networking platform revolutionized B2B marketing by launching LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. This tech gave companies a direct path to their ICP—a big deal in the early days of social media advertising.
LinkedIn Marketing Solutions has since become a B2B marketing staple, but LinkedIn isn’t resting on its laurels—thought leader ads prove that. I’d even say that this is LinkedIn’s biggest advertising launch since video ads went live in 2018.
I say that for one reason: People buy from people, not brands.
According to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising Study, 88% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know above all other forms of marketing.
This natural, human-to-human trust is why influencer marketing works so well. It’s also why B2B marketers partner with subject matter experts (SMEs) and other major players in their industries and companies—they want humans attached to their brands.
According to a poll, 94% of marketers believe “influencer marketing is a successful strategy for B2B businesses.” Despite that belief, just 24% of B2B businesses actually do influencer marketing.
Mark my words: Thought leader ads will quickly change that.
Authenticity is the new currency for B2B marketers. People want to hear from real people with the same challenges and responsibilities—not a jargon-filled message from a company’s LinkedIn page. We know this because peer review sites like G2 and Capterra are milestones along the path to purchase for buyers.
Historically, there hasn’t been a true way to deliver this trustworthy, human experience on LinkedIn. Outside of using screenshots as ads or promoting customer stories, ads came directly from the horse’s mouth (the company).
With thought leader ads, marketers will lean on SMEs and other trusted industry figures as megaphones for their brands. And really, it’s more than mere brand awareness; thought leader ads will increase the reach and credibility of your SMEs, making them mini-celebrities within your industry. You know who wants to talk to celebrities? Your buyers. In the future, giving your buyers access to your promoted thought leaders will be one more lever to pull during a deal cycle.
I’m convinced that all of this will bubble up into more engagement, retargeting opportunities, and cost savings for B2B marketers.
I won’t keep you waiting any longer. Here’s how I set up my experiment with thought leader ads and the nuggets of wisdom I gathered:
I sponsored posts from three Metadata employees: Mark Huber, Jason Widdup, and yours truly.
You can see them all below, along with their engagement metrics (clicks, comments, likes, and shares), click-through rates (CTRs), and increases in likes and comments post-promotion:
Mark’s post teased a case study between Metadata and Webex Events:
Jason, Metadata’s former VP of Marketing, shared metrics of Metadata’s AI optimization and how it stacks up against its manual alternative.
My post was about the performance of vertical video ads and how they help B2B marketers drive marketing-sourced pipeline.
What do the results mean for the future of thought leader ads?
At a high level, thought leader ads outperformed our image and video brand awareness ads in terms of CTR and CPC. (CTR was 2.5x our benchmark, while the cost per click (CPC) was $18.40 lower).
I’ll admit: It’s too soon for a verdict. But Metadata’s target audience clearly responds to the authenticity of the thought leader ads.
I’m willing to put my hopeful-yet-tentative stamp of approval on thought leader ads. I have enough data to form some initial conclusions—and the first one should be obvious:
1. More testing is required
The results of my experiment were promising, but the why behind the increased engagement and lower cost still isn’t clear.
Think about everything that could have played a role in their stellar debut: copy format, topic, tagging, photos, post length, layout, follower count, etc. More experiments and ad dollars are required before I can confidently say that a solid thought leader ad has X, Y, and Z in common. (Similar to how we can lay out a handful of best practices for image ads.)
2. Retargeting audiences will benefit
Thought leader ads will primarily be a brand awareness play for B2B marketers. Although mid- and lower-funnel messaging will have its place—see Jason and Mark’s posts—I see the format acting as an early chapter in the overall quest for conversion. But that doesn’t mean these ads aren’t important.
Brand awareness ads, including this new thought leader variety, are the foundation of retargeting strategies. Everyone who engages with them (clicks, comments, shares, etc.) becomes part of a new audience, which marketers can nurture and guide toward a demo request. The more people who engage with these ads, the more methodically marketers build their audiences.
3. Much-needed cost efficiency
Marketing in a down economy is a battle. Every dollar counts, and company leaders expect their marketing teams to put “points on the board” early and often. Understandably, this pushes many marketers to tried-and-true channels that have served them well before. Thought leader ads don’t fit the bill yet.
But based on my experiment, thought leader ads are likely an up-and-coming, cost-efficient way to drive engagement. Overall, our thought leader ads had a CPC of $4.14 compared to $22.54 for brand awareness campaigns built on the backs of image and video ads. That difference is huge—and it’s enough for B2B marketers to pivot their strategies ASAP to maximize budget and “do more with less.”
My intro made it sound like I jumped mindlessly into my experiment. I didn’t. Far from it.
Did I launch the experiment before my first cup of coffee? Yes, reluctantly.
Did I have a plan? Yes, absolutely.
If you’re eager to dive into LinkedIn’s thought leader ads, go for it—but keep this advice in mind.
Your why. Your reason. Your hypothesis. Whatever you want to call it, know it before spending anything on thought leader ads. And no, “everyone’s doing it” isn’t good enough.
Why are you giving them a test run? For me, it was about seeing if I could engage our audience in a more cost-efficient way. Getting clear on your rationale will help you set goals for your experiment and determine which metrics to track.
Time will tell which factors impact the performance of thought leader ads, but it’s safe to assume the writer of the promoted post will play a role.
So, when considering which posts to promote, ask yourself: Is this person actually an authority, and will people value what they say?
Boosting your company’s thought leaders also helps them build a community of like-minded people and increase their influence. These are great selling points if you want better buy-in from the folks you want to promote.
This goes hand in hand with the second piece of advice, but it’s worth mentioning.
Does the post’s content align with your narrative, and is it relevant to your audience? Is it thought-provoking, timely (posted within the last 30-60 days), and relatable? If it’s not excellent content, don’t put your brand’s name on it.
But here’s my biggest piece of advice: Embrace an experimental mindset.
I took 1% of Metadata’s marketing budget and let it fly. If thought leader ads didn’t meet my expectations after the experiment, no worries. I didn’t spend much or disrupt our overarching strategy.
But if they did, I knew they could have a compounding effect later. I encourage you to think the same way.
I’ll leave you with this: Banner blindness is a real thing. Once people become accustomed to seeing the same style of ads, delivered in the same format, with the same messaging—they start to tune them out.
It’s the harsh reality, but there’s an easy way around it: Deliver unique and valuable ads that stand out.
Thought leader ads are intrinsically unique. But there’s only so much time to stand out. It may be the early days of thought leader ads, but they’re going to catch on quickly. And when we reach mass adoption, that chance to stand out is gone. Act fast and good luck.