Social Media Lessons from a Silicon Valley Veteran

LinkedIn is one of the biggest social media networks in the world—experiencing a 1,000 percent growth rate in just over 10 years and boasting over 530 million users.

At the helm of this powerful social network’s marketing department is chief marketing officer (CMO) Shannon Brayton. Brayton has over two decades of experience working for some of Silicon Valley’s most disruptive tech companies, including Yahoo!, eBay, and now LinkedIn.

In this episode of the Hootcast podcast, our CEO Ryan Holmes chats with Brayton about lessons learned from her time in the tech industry, along with social media tips for business professionals.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Brayton’s leadership tips from years of industry experience
  • What you should and shouldn’t do on LinkedIn
  • How to be authentic on social media

Press play to hear the show in its entirety, or if you don’t have a set of earbuds handy, read the transcription of our conversation below.

Q&A with LinkedIn’s CMO Shannon Brayton

You’ve been working for a long time in Silicon Valley and spent most of your career in PR and comms. In 2015 you took the role as the CMO of LinkedIn, previously working as their communications executive. What has it been like moving from communications into marketing?

It has been fun and challenging. The fun part is really the fact that I’ve learned more in the last two years than I have in the previous 10. It’s been the most condensed version of marketing that you could ever imagine and I have absolutely loved that, even when it’s been really hard.

And I say challenging because I had essentially done just corporate communications for 20 years, so I had a bit of a bias against marketing because as your listeners probably know, comms and marketing bump into each other quite often and for me to get rid of those biases and then learn more about the team. It was definitely challenging but highly interesting, and at the end of it, and it’s been two and a half years, it’s been incredibly rewarding at the same time.

It’s a really interesting era that we live in when you think about the breadth of an executive role. You need to have all of these arrows in your quiver and right now we’re seeing a lot of different perspectives being demanded by leaders. How are you helping CEO Jeff navigate the communication needs that he has?

Part of the reason Jeff wanted me to take the role was because he was one of the first CEOs that I’m aware of that really saw that convergence of comms and marketing, and decided to put it under one leader at the company. Comms was creating a lot of content that was essentially bumping into the same type of content that the marketing team was creating.

I think Jeff realized early on that those narratives and the way that you tell your company story and your brand, it’s essentially the same thing, and we’ve actually gotten quite a bit of synergy by having it all roll up to one leader. And it is true how many arrows in the quiver, as you said, you have to have. My current team is 500 people and I have everything from pricing, everything in-between, and then social impact.

I think that’s one of the hard things about being a marketer these days is you really need to understand a little bit about a hundred different things.

I absolutely see that. You mentioned Jeff briefly and I think he’s been known as a very authentic leader. You recently wrote a really interesting article about how you won’t hire someone until you’ve had lunch with them, are there any tips you can share with people on how you can have authentic interactions on LinkedIn?

One piece of advice that Jeff will give to CEOs that ask him about how to approach social is to make sure that no one on your staff is responsible for writing your stuff, and that’s sometimes hard for CEOs to hear because they think, “Oh my gosh, how am I possibly going to find the time to do this.” Jeff does all of his own social media himself. I think you can really sniff it out when CEOs or executives in general aren’t being authentic or are having somebody write their stuff for them.

And so that’s my number one tip is to do it yourself. It’s amazing what it can do for both recruiting and retention of your own employees.

What are some best practices on how people can remain professional and authentic on social? Any personal strategies that have really helped you in your career?

On the professional side, you need to think about the guardrails between Facebook and Instagram versus LinkedIn. We really do encourage people to make sure that the content they’re posting remains professional on LinkedIn. So, things that are political in nature or pictures of your baby don’t belong unless you’ve got a way to dovetail it back to your professional life.

I see a lot of people who will make that mistake and post something that’s highly personal and not as professional and people will respond in the comments and say things like, “This is not Facebook” or, “This doesn’t belong here.” And so I really encourage people to think about their social media life in two very distinct ways. LinkedIn is the place where you talk about work and your profession and your industry, and Facebook is the place you talk about your kids and your Halloween decorating.

It’s really important that you kind of draw that invisible guardrail in your mind when you go to join social media because people expect a certain thing on LinkedIn and they expect a certain thing on Facebook.

I recently did, as you know, a LinkedIn social leadership course, and I always give my six tips on social leadership and comms for leaders. And picking your channel is always one of the top things that I tell people. I absolutely agree that baby pictures aren’t really the right thing for the LinkedIn channel unless you tie that back to a great business comms piece around what having children taught you about being a better leader or something like that.

I’ve seen moms post pictures of their kids upon returning from maternity leave and talk about what their maternity leave was like and what it was like returning to a job. I think that’s inherently appropriate on something like LinkedIn. But just sharing a picture of your cute baby in their Halloween outfit is not something we encourage because people don’t expect to see those types of things on LinkedIn.

And as the online world has become more political and you’re seeing more and more unfortunate chatter on places like Facebook and Twitter, I think we sort of disproportionately benefited because people think of LinkedIn more like a respite from political discourse.

In an article of yours you talked about reverse mentoring as being essential in your onboarding from PR to marketing at LinkedIn. I love the concept of reverse mentoring. Can you explain to our listeners what reverse mentoring is and how it helped you better understand LinkedIn and excel in your role?

I had done comms for 20 years and one day we announced that I’m going to take the CMO job on an interim basis. About 50 different decisions came to me within the next two days and I had zero idea what anyone was talking about. I also didn’t know any of the names of the people in the marketing world.

So essentially, I picked up around 12 different topics that I was the most clueless on, and that list could have gone on even longer by the way, Ryan. But we picked the top 12 and we found the people in the organization who could tell me a story about their topic.

So topics like demand gen, search engine marketing, content marketing, etc. and we picked cross-functional people to come in tell me what they work on, how I could get smarter about it, and what was working with it and what was not.

It was so incredibly helpful, one because it expanded my knowledge in a very short amount of time. We kept it to one-hour sessions and so incredibly helpful to have people share what’s on their minds. And then I got to know a lot more people, and not just the people that were going to report to me. So it broadened my knowledge of the team in a really material way.

I love the concept of reverse mentoring and I think that that’s such a testament to the power of it, to be able to get you ramped up to be the CMO of one of the most popular and well-known social and business brands.

I have a lot of leaders that ask me about how they can get onto social media and do better on social media and do better in comms, and my recommendation to them is always to go and find the super stars in their organization that understand social really well.

The domain expertise is there and you just need to tap into it, and for some leaders it’s a little humbling and it puts them out of their comfort zone. Did anything stand out to you from those reverse mentoring sessions?

So you hit the nail on the head in terms of it being a humbling experience. You do have to bring a level of humility to it because I’ve told a few peers about it and they all looked at me agog that I would actually invite more junior people to come in and explain something to me that I had a bunch of ostensibly dumb questions about. And so there is a humility piece that really kicks in, but it really went miles for me because I think people appreciated that I was willing to admit what I didn’t know.

I also did a product marketing manager reverse mentoring session, so I brought PMMs from a variety of different groups and when I walked into the room I introduced myself and noticed that a few of them were introducing themselves to each other. So these were people inside the same company, inside the same organization in similar roles and had never met each other.

So it was really fun for me to connect those dots and what’s come out of that is that we now do a regular PMM roundtable where they all get together on a regular basis. We’re now building curriculum that’s very specific for them, and had I not done that in a cross-functional way I wouldn’t have realized that they didn’t know each other and realized the need. And so a lot of ancillary benefits came out of the reverse mentoring in addition to trying to get me a little bit smarter about each of those areas.

I really liked what you said about asking the dumb question as a leader. When you’re in a big roundtable meeting and the big boss is there and somebody says some buzzword acronym, it’s really intimidating to put up your hand and say, ‘Hey, I don’t understand what this acronym means, can we explain that.’

So I always try to ask the dumb question as the leader to set the table that it’s okay to ask the dumb questions. I’ll often do it for the benefit of everybody so we’re all on the same page.

I totally agree, and I think putting yourself out there to ask the dumb question, like you said, it opens the room up to more questions and for people to feel more comfortable with the unknown.

I think one of the other reverse mentoring things that’s been really interesting is trying to stay up to speed on technology. So I did a reverse mentoring session related to Snapchat because, you know, I’m a little bit out of Snapchat’s demographic and I wanted to know more about it, both from a marketing platform standpoint and when my eight-year-old ends up on it I’ll know what she’s doing.

So I’ve been trying to stay up to speed on the new cool technologies through reverse mentoring too, and that allows me to ask a whole bunch of dumb questions which is really fun because it’ll make me eventually a better executive, marketer and parent longer term.

Well Shannon, it’s been really great having you. I’m wrapping up right now and I want to ask you the question of the day: what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in your career?

And it really was the worst piece of advice because bringing your whole self to work allows people around you to do the same. ou want to be the same person you are at home that you are at the office to the extent that it’s appropriate and professional.

My kids are part of me, and so it is something that I feel really comfortable talking about at work and it allows other people with kids to have conversations with me about it too. So worst piece of advice, don’t talk about your kids at work and best advice was bring your whole self to work because you’re going to be a much happier more authentic leader.

I think whoever gave you the bring your whole self was very wise in their advice. So thank you so much for sharing that with us today, Shannon, it’s been wonderful having you on.

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