Sitting somewhere between an employee and an influencer, workfluencers are on the rise. Rather than just curating articles on professional milestones and triumphs, workfluencers are known for being more open and honest about day-to-day work life, and consequently are favoured because they provide an authentic look at professional life.

As their popularity with audiences grows, brands are increasingly understanding that these workfluencers can generate more engagement and express the brand better and more authentically than corporate accounts. 

The home of the workfluencer is undoubtedly LinkedIn, and so we’re delighted to be joined by LinkedIn’s Head of Community, North America, Katie Carroll. We get her insight on where this new role has come from, why workfluencer marketing is so successful, and crucially, why this type of content is important for the professional world. 

Speakers: Cat Anderson & Katie Carroll

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Cat: Welcome to season two of Social Creatures, a podcast from Sprout Social. I’m Cat and I’m here to explore some of my favourite success stories from the world of social media. This is a space for anyone, and really, nearly anything goes.

But what makes an account successful or popular? Honestly, it’s hard to know, but that is what we’re here to find out.

Throughout the series, we’ll talk to the brands behind some of the best accounts that you know, and maybe some that you don’t know yet, to explore the way that these businesses, organisations, and individuals have achieved their success in social media, and how you can do it too.

Over the course of the past three years, we’ve seen a massive shift in how companies and brands market themselves online.

Prior to this, most brands that used social media either used it to collaborate with influencers or to elevate the profiles of their best and brightest, which were usually the founders, CEOs, and high-level executives, all in platforms like LinkedIn.

But in the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of a new type of user, the workfluencer. They combine the lifestyle branding of a traditional influencer with the business insights of a CEO, to give everyone on the outside a look into their working world.

To discuss the rise of the workfluencer. I’m joined today by Katie Carroll from LinkedIn. Katie is LinkedIn’s Head of Community for North America, and has seen the shift in the world of the workplace influencer.

Katie: I don’t tend to use the term work influencer personally, but we do have many creators and experts on LinkedIn talking about careers in the world of work. I would broadly call that the definition of workfluencer.

Some are creating content as a side hustle, others are entrepreneurs, they’re freelancers, incorporating it into their business. In terms of how this is sort of different from the workplace influencers of old, I’m not sure it materially is in terms of the content that’s created.

I think it’s just more that everybody is able to fit this role and can create content and be their own brand. And that’s sort of the world that we’re in now, so that’s not only open to everybody, but I think something a lot of people want to do.

Cat: I’m also right with you. And I find that every time we have a new word like this, I cringe a little bit, but I do think it describes something that I’ve certainly been seeing a lot more in my LinkedIn experience.

The last three years have served as a bit of a definitive shift in workplace culture for obvious reasons. I wonder from your side of things, how do you think the past three years has given rise to this new world of workfluencers?

Katie: Yeah, so when the pandemic began, I was at that time working on LinkedIn’s news team. I’ve been at LinkedIn for about 10 years now, and I was covering news developments, curating content for members around everything from companies going remote, navigating layoffs and furloughs, to mental health.

And what I really noticed during that period was a real sense of community. People were relating to each other, they were sharing experiences, coming together to help each other. And for me, that was a real bright spot in this insane devastating time.

And I think it helped accelerate a lot of work trends, including people speaking really candidly about their experiences at work. Topics that were previously somewhat taboo, talking about things like mental health or juggling life and professional responsibilities.

Suddenly, that was the conversation that everyone was having, and that was what people were creating content around. And I think that’s really where these kinds of professional voices found a space, was communicating about what companies were doing, talking about their careers, the challenges that people were facing.

And it really was sort of this shared experience and kind of opened up the floodgates in a way around these kinds of topics.

Cat: I think to your point, obviously, with the pandemic and having more of these vulnerable conversations online, similar to any time that we see more vulnerability, that creates a closer sense of community and obviously, community is at the core of everything that you do.

From my perspective, as someone who uses LinkedIn, like obviously, I don’t work at LinkedIn, but I think it’s transformed the platform because it’s no longer just about work updates and things like that.

It feels so much more human and so much more real as a result of this. What do you think? Is that normal experience?

Katie: I do think that that’s something people are feeling and seeing. I have an interesting view because I’ve seen it for such a long time, so I can sort of tell that these things have been developing since many years ago.

We opened up our publisher platform in 2012, 2013, and over time, you’ve really seen the types of conversations on LinkedIn shift. And so, the pandemic I think really accelerated a lot of that. But I think we would’ve gotten there anyway.

And essentially, I think people are looking for a place to talk about the world of work, to talk about their industries, things happening, and I’m really seeing LinkedIn be that place.

And I think one thing that sets it apart and makes it a really great experience for people, is that it’s really about sharing insights. It’s about learning, it’s about people helping each other, thinking about what is going to help other people navigate their careers, and it’s a real generous space because of that.

Cat: I totally agree, and that’s so interesting from your perspective as you say, seeing it grow. You’ve obviously been behind the scenes, seeing how LinkedIn itself has been trying to nurture these things over the years as well.

So, I mean you must be thrilled with how things are going, and I definitely think it’s very interesting how my use of LinkedIn has truly and completely transformed. I always use LinkedIn and it was always great for you know like networking.

But I think to your point, I’m using it now to get information and I’m seeing people sharing a lot more in that kind of vein these days. So, truly, I probably use LinkedIn more than other platforms.

I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about your take on what is the value of having a workfluencer versus for example, a company’s own page or a C-suite executive fulfilling the same function.

Katie: I think they’re all valuable facets of a company’s brand. There are some aspects of workplace culture or the company mission that can be best conveyed by these employees who are coming in from the ground who really see things how they are.

And then there are other aspects especially around company policy or strategy or philosophy that make more sense coming from leadership or from an entity representing the company as a whole.

So, I think companies really need to embrace the fact that you have to look at all of these different channels and you have to look at how they all fit together because it’s how it is now, and the best companies I think are the ones who really embrace it.

Cat: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Like they’re not the same thing. So, we’re not really comparing apples to apples by comparing a workfluencer to your C-suite or to your company’s page.

Do you think that in terms of the reach that people have and the par of the content that they’re creating, do you think that workfluencers are turning things like thought leadership onto its head?

Katie: I think thought leadership can come from anyone, anywhere. If you have a perspective to share, you can build up your brand that way. And there’s no reason that being a thought leader I think is restricted to any certain type of person or a certain level on a career ladder.

And so, I’m not sure I would necessarily say that the rise of these sort of work focused creators is turning thought leadership on its head. But I think anything that encourages people to share their expertise or insights is a good thing.

And I think the fact that we’re seeing these different types of voices enter the conversation is making it feel more accessible and approachable for anybody to build their brand around things like thought leadership.

Cat: I thought you were going to say a collection word there and bring up the ever-used authenticity piece, but I mean the great thing about workfluencers is that it does feel authentic, and I know that I’ve just lost a million points for saying that because I feel like we can’t have social media conversation without talking about authenticity.

So, yeah, I apologise but it is a big part of it, and I think that these workfluencers, there is a great deal of authenticity with that.

I do wonder on that respect though, do you think that having someone from varying departments or different levels of seniority to act as a workfluencer or as a face for your brand, does that help you build more authenticity?

Katie: I think it absolutely helps build authenticity. In terms of media training, that could go a bunch of different directions, but I do feel like potential employees or customers are able to hear about your brand from a variety of sources, a variety of perspectives, and they’re understanding the actual people who make up a brand.

And if I’m thinking about a company where I might want to work or some company that I might wanna be involved with in some way, understanding who actually is behind that is a really important piece of the equation.

And I think that you can see different perspectives, you can see different areas that might not be as obvious to find from other places.

For example, if you are a data scientist and you are following somebody who is a data scientist at a certain company, that’s going to tell you a lot about what it might actually mean to work in that company, in that department.

Cat: So, do you think workfluencers help ideas flow from the bottom up in a brand, and maybe change the dynamic of who creates marketing ideas?

Katie: I would imagine smart companies would say yes to that. I feel like it is an opportunity to really understand what people care about, what people have to say.

And if I were in a marketing department at a company, I certainly would be looking at these people to get great ideas from, or even to just understand kind of what’s resonating, what’s not.

What are some areas that are worth exploring more both from like a marketing and brand perspective, but also, just from sort of a company policy or strategy perspective. I think there’s a lot of value that can come from looking across the entire company, not just up at the C-suite.

Cat: I’m just wondering if we’re maybe having this conversation and as I said at the top of this chat, I’m seeing loads of people on my feed, but maybe for some of the people who are listening who are not entirely sure the type of person we’re talking about, the type of content we’re talking about, and they want to look up an example of a great workfluencer — do you have any examples that people who are doing an amazing job with this on LinkedIn at the minute, or that you believe are really getting it right?

Katie: Yeah, there’s so many great examples. I was doing a little bit of research for this and ended up creating such a long list that I’ve had to shrink it down.

So, one thing that I would just recommend is go through your LinkedIn feed, see what other people are reacting to, responding to, and follow some great voices because they’re all over the place.

Some that I want to call out are Jamie Shields. So, he’s a disability inclusion coordinator for a workforce management firm called AMS, and he talks a ton about his experiences as somebody who has registered blind. He talks about ableism and how companies can address that and think about recruiting more diverse workforces. So, he’s great.

Zach Wilson is a Data Engineer at Airbnb. He talks about being in the industry. I’m from Silicon Valley so it is something I focus on a lot, just understanding what’s going on in tech in the Bay Area. And then he also talks about actual topics related to data and AI and technology, et cetera.

Another good one sort of in a similar vein is Peter Yang who works at Roblox. He’s also talking a ton about what’s happening in tech in the creator economy. Just really interesting insights about that field.

Hannah Awonuga, she’s the Global Head of Colleague Engagement, Diversity and Inclusion at Barclays. And so, she’s an interesting space because she herself is a leader within the company.

So, a little bit out of maybe that typical workfluencer category, let’s say. But she’s talking about her experiences in her own career journey as well as DEI and leadership topics and I think is really helping to make that accessible to people who might want to follow her career.

I think one of the great things about a lot of these workfluencers or just people kind of talking more broadly about the professional space, is a lot of topics that companies really should be focusing on and paying attention to, get unearthed or brought into the spotlight through some of these people talking directly about it.

Danielle Farage is a creator who’s talking a lot about how to focus on Gen Z, how to attract Gen Z talent, how to work with them in the workforce. Honestly, I could go on and on and on. There’s so many great voices here.

Cat: I love that last point you made about how workfluencers are going to surface these conversations that brands like they maybe need to be having.

Do you think it’s maybe easier for a workfluencer to have these conversations rather than brands themselves? And therefore, I mean again, maybe that’s another big advantage to having them within your workforce?

Katie: I have to sort of mention one of my absolute favourite sort of creators in this space, Ellie Middleton. So, she posted on LinkedIn about a year ago, essentially calling out what it means to be professional. 

And she sort of went right to the point about just because what we think is professional isn’t necessarily representative of who the workforce is, who should be involved in determining what a professional actually is and looks like, et cetera.

And so, this post went absolutely viral. She has since become essentially an advocate for people who are neurodiverse. So, she’s autistic, she has ADHD, she speaks very openly and candidly about these things, and she’s been able to launch her own community for neurodiverse people to be able to talk about all these things, and she’s built a whole business on it.

And I think companies pay attention to things like that. I’m seeing numerous people like Ellie who are able to become consultants for big brands who get the attention of companies who want to figure out how to make certain things about their work life and work culture better.

And I think that’s a really important thing that this group of creators has sort of brought to the table, they’re directly having a hand on shaping what business looks like.

Cat: Katie, I love that answer, and in fact, I loved it so much it’s inspired two questions to follow up with.

So, first of all, you mentioned Ellie there as a great example of a workfluencer, but it sounds like she is a workfluencer outside of, I don’t want to say the confines, but she’s not a workfluencer within a company.

Do you see workfluencers as being able to be both or do you see them as being sort of sitting outside of a company?

Katie: When I look around at sort of conversations around the world work and trends et cetera, I’m seeing probably as many voices outside of traditional company structures as within them. And I think there’s benefits to all of the above.

We’re also, I think, seeing plenty of people who may start as sort of an employee within a certain company and their content really takes off and they’re able to start their own business from it or turn it from a side hustle into a full-time gig, to me, says that they really are tapping into themes that people care about and messages that people want to hear.

Cat: Second question about Ellie then, is you mentioned (and I love this and I would really love to dig a little more into this in general) the concept of professionalism.

I can’t help but think that workfluencers maybe have changed the perception of what it means to be professional. I’d love to hear your take on that, like what is the impact that workfluencers have had on the perception of what it means to be professional?

Katie: I think this is another case where it all really accelerated during the pandemic. Suddenly, we were able to see into a CEO’s house as they were doing a meeting and their kids run into the room, all of these sorts of things that were previously sort of big don’ts within a professional space.

No one had a choice. We were all navigating this together. And I do think that that’s an area where the sort of workfluencer type tapped into something that we were all thinking and feeling.

And Ellie, what I really loved about that first post of hers that went viral is she goes down sort of list by list of “I have piercings, I am young, I’m bubbly, I have all these different things that are not part of sort of the traditional picture of leadership or professionalism or career success.”

And I do think that this is how it’s always been, it’s just now people are able to be themselves more and talk about it more. We’re all people, we’ve always been people, but the idea that you have to kind of shut off a piece of you to fit within a professional sphere, I think that is deteriorating and has collapsed.

And people who are talking about what it means to work at certain companies, to be a professional of variety of ages or backgrounds, et cetera, that’s only further illuminating the fact that people talk about bringing your full self to work, and these people actually are bringing their full self to work and casting that back out so that others can see that.

I’ve seen this start to develop since before the pandemic. I really have, and I think that so many of the workplace trends that the pandemic kind of ushered forth including this, including just the idea of being more vocal about who you are, the space you occupy, and why it’s important for people to be occupying those spaces within a workplace context …

I think we were getting there but I think that everything really did get sort of supercharged during this period where there was a real evaluation of is the world of work, what is that distinction between personal and professional when suddenly, a lot of that is happening in our houses. The entire game changed basically overnight.

And so, I do think that this has all been building and I think that we would be seeing this in general, but this was one of those once in a lifetime experiences that I think forced a lot of issues out into the open in a really good way.

And I do think that the more people talk about who they are, what they represent, how they want to express themselves, it becomes more inclusive. It starts to break down those borders of who can look like a leader, who can look like a professional.

And I think that’s just incredibly important and it feels kind of hollow to try to hide whoever you might be outside of work when we’re all sitting here, I’m in my living room right now. It just is a very different situation than we found ourselves in previously.

And I think that starting to kind of pull the polish off a little bit is good, and companies have to kind of respond to that if that’s what their employees or the talent pool that they’re looking at cares about.

Cat: I think it’s really empowering and it’s just great to hear that, because it definitely is going to be really aspirational for other people climbing in their careers to see people who maybe look like them or behave like them in positions of leadership who maybe weren’t there before.

And again, I do think there’s something to be said for workfluencers. Not only talking about what’s excellent and wonderful all the time, but also talking about the struggles of everyday life within a workforce.

It’s great to be able to have those honest conversations because number one, there is a lot to be said for reading something online and going like, “Oh my God, thank God it’s not just me who struggles with this.” You get that comfort of you’re not the only one.

I think the more you can open up and talk about different things, that’s always gonna be a positive thing, and including what you’re struggling with.

So, Katie, we had a couple of people who were excited that you were coming on the show today and actually sent in some questions for you. So, we’ve got one here from Gerard Murnaghan who is our VP here at Sprout Social. Let’s see what he has to say.

Gerard: Hi Kate, Gerard Murnaghan here from Sprout Social. All influencers feel like the new thing on LinkedIn, and you’ve got some really good insights. So, I’m curious, what do you think is the next big trend we’ll see on LinkedIn over the next kind of one to two years and maybe why. Thank you.

Katie: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think we are going to continue to see a focus on sharing knowledge, really helping people help each other through what they know, sharing their experiences, sharing their skills, and insights to help people make sense of what they’re experiencing at work or how to navigate their careers.

I think particularly with hiring increasingly focused on skills, trends around upskilling and trying to pivot into different opportunities that way. I would expect that the content that we’re going to see matches that, and becomes increasingly skills-focused and knowledge-focused.

Cat: If anyone is listening and they’re thinking that they would maybe like to become a workfluencer or maybe build up their personal brand on LinkedIn a little bit more, would you have any tips or tricks for maybe both companies, and then also separately for individuals who maybe do want to become a workfluencer?

Katie: I have to use the buzzword again. I think the biggest tip is be authentic or encourage your employees to be authentic. There’s a reason that that comes up on every social media conversation ever. It’s because it’s true.

If content feels like it is trying to sell a brand or a product, if it feels like it’s a press release, it was written by a committee, people can tell.

I think that one of the benefits of encouraging your employees to be advocates is that they get to say it in their own voices and it’s not always glowing and positive. And this is why companies need to be paying attention as well because it’s a really good sort of litmus test for what people might be feeling about whatever you’re doing as a brand.

And I think for companies, the other tip I’d have to give, is embrace it. It’s great to set clear guidelines for social media use, suggest things for people to share, but don’t sort of go overboard trying to control the narrative or try to constrain people who can be your biggest champions if you let them.

Empower your employee advocates, your work influencers and work with them. It’s only going to be a benefit to you to do that. And then this is true for any content creator, whether you’re a person, whether you’re a brand: think about the value that you’re giving to your audience.

Share your perspective on trending topics, talk about what’s happening in your industry, talk about your career growth to help others navigate and grow in their own careers.

This kind of gets back to the idea of authenticity too, is if you’re trying to just sell, if you’re just broadcasting, if you’re just trying to promote something, people aren’t going to be that interested.

You need to be thinking about what is going to resonate with people, what is going to get them to engage, and what is actually adding value in providing some sort of insight that’s going to help them.

And I think a lot of the best creators that I see on LinkedIn absolutely do that. They’re having really fascinating conversations about what’s happening in their lives and their careers, and their fields, and that’s something that really everybody is able to be a teacher now, and I think that’s a pretty amazing development.

Also, one final point on that actually, is I’m a strong believer that everybody is an expert. Everybody has something to say, something to share. I think especially people who are just getting started in their careers, very often feel like, “I haven’t been in the work world that long, what do I have to say?” But they absolutely do.

And so, whatever perspective somebody might be coming from, there is value there and there’s something that is worth sharing. So, that’s my final spiel.

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Cat: And what a lovely inspiring note to finish on. Thank you so much, Katie, for your time today. This has been excellent. Thank you.

You’ve been listening to Social Creatures with me, Cat Anderson. Many thanks to Katie for joining me today, and you can find all the links to her socials in the description of this episode. And of course, a thank you to Sprout Social for making this podcast possible.

If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to let us know on social media at Sprout Social and subscribe to hear other episodes like this wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you in two weeks.