When Justin Welsh set out to start a consulting business a few years back, he knew he would need to get potential clients’ attention. A former software executive, he knew he had the bona fides to help early-stage tech companies succeed; what he wasn’t sure of was how to let potential clients know that.
He’d been on Twitter for years, but it seemed too negative a place for what he was trying to do. By comparison, LinkedIn seemed safer, more positive. To boot, Welsh’s potential clients spent significant amounts of time on the site, and there weren’t as many people creating content. That meant less competition.
So in late 2018, he started to publish “practical and tactical” tips for growing startup businesses each morning on the platform, with a dash of an emotional element here and there. (Representative post: “People vastly underestimate the value of their knowledge. Publish yours and let the market pleasantly surprise you.” One thousand and seven hundred likes.)
By this year, he’d gained more than 300,000 followers. Along the way, he noticed a shift in the inquiries he received. No longer were people mostly asking for software advice. “They were asking me about how I was using LinkedIn,” he said. Today, Welsh is a full-blown LinkedIn influencer who teaches other people to use the platform as well as he does, and his one-man LinkedIn-focused business now brings in nearly $2 million annually, he said.
After years of being known as a place to share resumes and search for jobs, LinkedIn has quietly transformed into a center for a different sort of influencer—the ROI-obsessed go-getter. It is, in many ways, ground zero for hustle culture and what some have deemed “toxic positivity,” an aspirational place for people more concerned with self-care and cash flow than wisecracks and unattainable beauty.
“They feel like, ‘Hey that can be me,’” said LinkedIn influencer Tobi Oluwole, who has built a successful career coaching business through his LinkedIn following.
Elsewhere, the site has become the butt of the joke and a focus of increased scorn—the perfect example of a try-hard corporate culture where people mistake banal, rote platitudes for authenticity, a puffy Patagonia vest in website form. In August, when the CEO of a LinkedIn-focused marketing company was roundly mocked and chastised after he published a tearful video announcing layoffs, the derision was fueled as much as anything by how perfectly it represented what LinkedIn has become to bewildered outsiders.
The hatred of such self-absorbed posts on LinkedIn has become so intense that a subreddit dedicated to mocking the platform’s most “insufferable,” “cringeworthy” posts—like business leaders advocating for taking less vacation to prove your worth or rebranding lunch as “JUST EAT PowerHour”—has garnered 175,000 followers. But the disgust doesn’t reckon with why so many people have become unironically attracted to the platform.
“People are still kind of puzzled by it,” said the D.C.-based author and advisor Jeffrey Selingo, who has more than 600,000 followers on LinkedIn.
The joke is perhaps on everyone else, as many of the same people getting ripped apart on Reddit have figured out a relatively easy way to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars by spouting inspirational, if often conventional, wisdom. The influencers themselves say the platform has become a profit machine, the sort of business-friendly space where a strong presence can directly lead to speaking gigs, brand deals, sales leads, career coaching opportunities, and more—and without the second-by-second scrutiny that comes with Instagram.
“Opportunities just come flooding through your doors,” said Chantel Soumis, a LinkedIn influencer who said she received $1 million in revenue-generating opportunities in three months after she publicly launched her creative side business on LinkedIn.
The shift is partially the result of a conscious, years-long push by LinkedIn to increase its standing as a social platform relative to the competition. LinkedIn has developed new creator-focused tools and programs and hired full-time employees called creator managers who actively help influencers build their audiences. In recent years, the alterations have started to reap dividends as people started to view the platform as the closest thing the internet had to an online watercooler.
“It's changed people's behavior,” said Sujan Patel, who has nearly 40,000 followers and is the co-founder of the software company Mailshake.
Compared to the rest of the internet, LinkedIn has developed into a positive, almost benign place, slightly less prone to political infighting, which made it the perfect place to do business. The reason for the “toxic positivity,” as Oluwole put it, is that the stakes feel higher with a name, photo, and employer attached to each individual post. (“People don't want their jobs and careers threatened,” said Oluwole, who compared the platform to navigating workplace politics. “You're smiling even though you don't really care.” Soumis agreed: “There's money on the line.”) Inoffensive hashtag campaigns like #LetsGetHonest gained traction on the platform as the most positive members of the business world started to see the platform as a respite from the rest of the increasingly ugly internet—a place where being polite still mattered and self-improvement was valued.
“It was a place where people genuinely seemed to want to better themselves. If they were on the platform, they were there to learn, grow, and advance their career,” said Soumis. As a result, whereas a mean-spirited joke might go viral on Twitter, stories that showcased earnestness, vulnerability, and empowerment came to play well on LinkedIn, said Natalie Riso, a 26-year-old who became a LinkedIn influencer after sharing her journey overcoming her lack of work experience as a young woman.
Those stories came to be known (and ridiculed) just as much for the way they were written (punchy, pseudo-inspirational one-sentence paragraphs) as the topics they covered (“Is Failure The New Success?”), so much so that BuzzFeed mockingly deemed them “broetry” in 2017. “Have you seen those new posts flooding LinkedIn?” the reporters Ryan Mac and Alex Kantrowitz wrote. “One sentence. One paragraph. A dull personal anecdote. A clichéd life lesson.”
But the writing style was popularized for a specific reason, often ignored by those mocking it from the sidelines: It worked. People not only read and shared the posts, but found them inspirational. So what if the writing style was formulaic? “I don't go on social media to read encyclopedias or the Bible,” quipped Welsh.
Maybe just as importantly, the LinkedIn style was simple enough for people to mimic, even if they weren’t used to writing. “It was a really easy format,” said Riso.
As a result, it also became a system that was easy to game. Welsh, who describes himself as a “systems-based person,” said that he is able to craft a newsletter and 12 pieces of “unique content” every week in less than two hours, adding—probably correctly—that “most people struggle to do that in 10 hours.”
Pam Moore, who has 350,000 followers on the platform, said she tells people struggling to start building a brand on LinkedIn to use a strategy she has termed “OPC,” an acronym for “other people’s content.” Because LinkedIn also displays people’s likes and shares, she said, people can grow their brand simply by curating their tastes with likes and shares. “It’s almost like Big Brother's watching you,” said Moore, who estimated that “90 percent” of her content on LinkedIn is other people’s. Moore has also been invited into a group with other people who work in FinTech and have an online following. “Everybody shares each other's content,” he said. “It’s helping everybody build authority.”
After a few of his own posts performed well, Oluwole, who also works at Shopify, decided he would post on LinkedIn every day at 10 a.m. for two years. There were days where posting felt like going to the gym when you’re tired, but he started to view his LinkedIn feed as a marketing channel, which told “specific stories that lead towards a specific call to action that lead towards a specific sales funnel” for his business, but also focused on stories in line with his mission of helping people pursue their dream careers, like a police officer who got a tech job after taking his program. That felt “authentic” to his mission while also playing well on the platform. What he realized is that while people went to Instagram to stare at beautiful people, people came to LinkedIn with more straightforward aspirational intentions. “Everyone's frustrated about being underpaid,” he said. So they liked posts where people got the raise they deserved. After identifying such topics, he zeroed in on them and watched his follower count grow to 100,000. “It was all very intentional,” he said.
To maximize his engagement, Oluwole also used a LinkedIn-focused analytics application called Shield to analyze which of his posts performed best. Then, Oluwole would recycle the old posts or create “three, four different posts talking about it a different way.” This provided value to his newer followers even when he was feeling uninspired. “Some days I don't have anything to say. But it doesn't mean that this audience doesn't have anything to hear,” he said. To date, his content has now been viewed 80 million times, he said, adding: “If you looked at how much that would cost on Facebook or Instagram, it's a million dollars easy.”
That might come across as boastful. But as part of his career coaching, Oluwole tries to push people to not view talking about their accomplishments as unbecoming, a tendency in corporate life that he and many others believe has stopped too many people from maximizing their professional potential. “We're trained not to brag. We're trained not to talk about ourselves. It's arrogant,” he said.
But the self-congratulatory nature of LinkedIn has nevertheless come to annoy people like Tom Orbach, a growth marketing manager based in Tel Aviv. Earlier this year, tired of the “self-loving culture” on LinkedIn, he decided to scrape hundreds of thousands of LinkedIn posts in an attempt to identify what made some go viral. He found that personal corporate stories with some sort of “rebellious” but agreeable element—like standing up to a boss or putting family or health first—tended to perform best. “When people talk about themselves and how they break the system and their anti-professionalism, they go viral. This is the secret ingredient,” he said.
As a joke, he created a viral LinkedIn post generator, complete with an adjustable cringe level, which itself took off online. “LMAO this is genius,” one person wrote on Twitter. Said another: “people are telling me i need to be more active on linkedin, i wonder how long i can use this auto-generator before someone catches on.”
The influencers say every platform has its problems. Twitter has its trolls. Facebook has politics. Instagram has its vanity. LinkedIn is no different. “On LinkedIn, you have virtue signaling,” said Riso. But for as much as that exists, “there's also a lot of really genuine, amazing people writing stories that are helping people,” she said. “There's been times where I've written stories about times that I helped a colleague with a panic attack and had people DM me saying, ‘Oh, my God, you saved me from a panic attack today. It was so nice reading how you handled that.’”
Some of those who don’t toe the line with safe, pseudo-inspirational business stories on LinkedIn still can face the online abuse typical of many other platforms. One such person is Madison Butler, the chief people officer at an Austin-based cannabis company, who uses her platform to discuss systemic issues in corporate America and, specifically, recruiting.
“I've gotten death threats. People showed up at my house,” said Butler, a Black woman. “I have people who straight up hate me.”
Unlike some other platforms, LinkedIn makes explicit that the point of its creator program is to help people make money.
“What’s unique about LinkedIn is that it’s not creation for the sake of entertainment – it’s about creation for economic opportunity, and that’s what we’re all about at LinkedIn,” a LinkedIn spokesperson told me.
The potential economic opportunities are even more plentiful than on other platforms. A number of influencers told me that they have taken brand deals—a typical line of revenue for influencers—that align with their mission. But they also said sponsored content and the like can come with risk on a platform built on public-facing authenticity. It can also be harder to meet expectations. Riso said that engagement numbers are less consistent than on Instagram, where it is easier to predict how many likes a given post will receive.
Still, the money to be made through LinkedIn is very real. Butler, the chief people officer at the Austin cannabis company, said she has been able to raise her public speaking fee “exponentially” as a result of her high follower count on LinkedIn, and that’s just one way people make money.
“The ROI is significantly greater” than on platforms like Twitter, said Patel, the co-founder of Mailshake. He said he personally gets about a dozen sales leads a month as a result of growing his LinkedIn count and remaining active.
Other business leaders agree. “For years, I invested the least amount of time in LinkedIn, but I got the highest value,” said Moore, who runs a digital brand marketing agency. The issue, she said, is that many people still don’t realize that “humans are on there.” Asked about the primary value of the platform, she responded immediately: “Oh, it's definitely money.”
But perhaps the most lucrative and consistent money can come from teaching others to be as good at LinkedIn as the influencers are. Oluwole, for one, has integrated LinkedIn training into his career coaching.
Welsh, the software consultant, has gone further, pivoting his entire business to focus on making money off LinkedIn. He now sells “The Operating System for LinkedIn Creators” (which “used to be called the LinkedIn Operating System before LinkedIn found out,” he said). Welsh’s program includes multiple courses, all of which cost $150, and an optional $9 a month add-on to receive his newsletter. Altogether, the program teaches how to create LinkedIn content and build a LinkedIn-based business like him.
"It's essentially everything that I did to build this business. It's pulling back the curtains on using the platform successfully,” he said. “And by successfully I mean, both growing your audience, but also learning how to generate revenue from that same audience.”
Welsh described the business model as something of a “numbers game.”
“I generate content on LinkedIn that gets seen on average 200,000 times a day,” he said. “Of those 200,000 impressions, I generally drive about 4,000-5,000 website visitors each day. And of those 4,000-5,000 website visitors each day, on average, 30 people will buy my course at an average revenue per user of $150 and generate $4,500 a day. And then 30 to 40 percent of them will upsell into the $9 month subscription product, which is now a $15,000 MRR business.” (“MRR” is short for monthly recurring revenue.)
As a result, he has built a multi-million dollar business and is helping others do the same. Welsh estimated that “at least 50” of his students are now running “six-figure” LinkedIn business as well—and said five of them are hitting seven figures like he is.
Even at the center of hustle culture, the demand to post consistently can prove exhausting. Soumis burned out on the influencer life at the beginning of this year after working 100-hour weeks and posting almost every day. “LinkedIn is all about hustle, hustle, hustle,” she said. “It's such a burnout culture.” Now, she works a regular full-time job, which she appreciates. When she receives an opportunity through LinkedIn, she refers it to someone she knows, though, she admits, she still sometimes gets compensated for that. “It's still very lucrative,” she said.
As Soumis slows down, Welsh is as energized as ever, and he said he’s started to notice the “Twitter thought leadership folks” migrating over to LinkedIn, increasingly aware of the potential financial opportunity this side of the internet. “They’re starting to recognize that while Twitter has a lot of Bitcoin bros who make $20,000 a year, LinkedIn has folks who are employed and looking to spend money,” said Welsh. “They've seen the opportunity on LinkedIn and they're going for it while it's hot.”
These days, Welsh is starting to move away from the short, punchy style that helped make him into a million-dollar business. He feels it’s become misused and trite. But he also has no time for the people who say LinkedIn is a wasteland of overly positive, single-mindedly capitalistic, and inauthentic authenticity.
"If people are consuming content, buying products and services, and supporting businesses, then your opinion is relatively meaningless,” said Welsh. “Everyone has an opinion. The only opinion that matters is the market.”
Right now, the market is speaking quite loudly. Soon after launching the viral LinkedIn post generator, its creator, Tom Orbach, received an offer from a company to buy it from him. The company was named Taplio, and it is dedicated to helping people grow their brand on LinkedIn for a small monthly fee. In the end, like everyone else, Orbach took the money.