By Accident Or By Design? LinkedIn Exposes Advertisers' Campaign Data

Update: I published the below post early this morning. Mid-day I received an email from someone in LinkedIn’s Corporate Communications saying, “We were made aware of this issue that enabled a limited number of LinkedIn members to see this campaign data. It has since been fixed.”

That’s good news, it was inadvertent and not by design. I can confirm that I for one can no longer see the Sponsored Update campaign results of more than a dozen investment companies and other firms, as I described below.

But I still have questions regarding the visibility of the data, how it became visible and, ultimately, what sorts of protections and monitoring that LinkedIn has in place. Without a better understanding of LinkedIn’s controls, advertisers’ interest may very well cool.

When I hear more, I’ll update the post. I’m doing this piecemeal because my email goes out at 3CDT and this first update should be in place, at the minimum.

Something happened on LinkedIn this week (is still happening as of this posting Thursday morning) that serves as a fresh reminder about the hazards of relying on others’ ever-evolving platforms.

On Tuesday, while in the process of working on a client’s competitive review, I noticed that LinkedIn was showing the results of firms’ advertising campaigns—the impressions, clicks, interactions, followers acquired and engagement rate of sponsored updates. I was dumbfounded.

To give you an idea, below I show a J.P. Morgan update, one of the best-performing updates in the samples I reviewed and off-point for mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) firms.

On the company page, the shaded sponsored update campaign results (under the heading "Gained from Sponsoring") appear to be a show/hide module. I would have assumed its display would be driven by the account login—only those with admin access to the company page should be able to see results for only their own campaigns.

When I first realized what I was seeing, I'll admit that I made a beeline to check out the BlackRock company page. LinkedIn has singled BlackRock out for its sponsored update success (see a related post), and I wanted to see the data for myself.

Curiously, no data could be seen in most of the BlackRock campaign results modules. As shown in the example below from 10 months ago, the campaign name (revealing the target audience) and elements displayed but with zeros where the data would be. That can't be right.

BlackRock Sponsored Update Zeros

Also new to me Tuesday: Each company update that hasn’t been sponsored has a "Sponsor update" button that opens to a sponsored update promotion. That seems odd to show to all, given that only the company can sponsor an update on its own page.

From time to time, I use my clients' logins to access their LinkedIn analytics. Thinking that my use of multiple logins may have somehow confused things, I cleared my cache but still saw the data.

Then I asked several others to tell me whether they could see what I was seeing. Most logged-in desktop or laptop Chrome or Internet Explorer browser-users could. The one who couldn’t see the data was accessing LinkedIn via Safari on a MacBook Air.

Investment companies were my focus, but I also found that I could see the campaign data from companies not in the financial services space, too. 

Firms whose campaign data was visible in my spotcheck include:

  • Aberdeen Asset Management
  • Calamos Investments
  • Deutsche Bank
  • Franklin Templeton
  • Goldman Sachs
  • LPL Financial
  • Morgan Stanley
  • OppenheimerFunds
  • Putnam Investments
  • T. Rowe Price

If you work for one of these firms, I'd reach out to your LinkedIn account manager and demand to know what the heck is going on.

The question for LinkedIn: Is the publication of this data by design or by accident? I’d sent a tweet about my discovery Tuesday and then an email to LinkedIn’s press account Tuesday evening but have yet to receive a response. I’ve been checking Twitter and Google search results for any official or unofficial commentary on this. So far, crickets.

When and if I hear from LinkedIn, I’ll update this post. My expectation (and hope) is that this is a programming glitch that will be promptly addressed. In the absence of a credible explanation from LinkedIn, I find this breach and its persistence for most of a week to be unacceptable and inexcusable. Shouldn't somebody be paying closer attention?

What About Protections For The Advertiser?

Sponsored updates are an important source of revenue for LinkedIn. They drove almost half of the Marketing Solutions' $140 million quarterly revenue, which was up by more than double since July 2014, according to the company's July 30, 2015, earnings announcement. There is every intention to build on that, and the financial services vertical has been one of the areas of sales (and content) focus. 

Let’s proceed with the assumption that showing others’ campaign data is not how LinkedIn expects to drive sponsored update adoption. This episode nonetheless is a teachable moment for all of us increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of using social platforms to more effectively reach audiences.

If you’ve ever used a social network for any length of time, you’re likely to have been surprised by changes it’s made. Facebook is notorious for this but every platformand especially the public companies under pressure to demonstrate growth in usage and revenue—will change things up without notice. And, that has frequently included the exposure of additional data. While most of these surprises have affected individuals, brands and companies acting as content publishers have been caught unaware and needed to scramble.

I submit that advertising on these platforms raises the stakes, for both platform provider and the brand willing to commit a piece of its advertising budget.

Social networks are disruptive by definition. They don’t necessarily play by existing rules. As I thought about seeing all that campaign data this week, I wondered whether advertisers may be making assumptions that those running the social platforms either don’t share or aren’t aware of.

What assurances have been extended—more to the point, where is it writtenthat campaign results aren't something to tinker with by publishing or otherwise sharing?

By now, and through some trial and error, the networks have learned the importance of safeguarding personal data. But how much vetting has been done by advertisers to understand the steps that are taken to make certain that competitors don’t see one another’s marketing response data?

How seriously do LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook et al take the need to protect their advertisers, for some of whom advertising effectiveness is a leading indicator of their business results?

We have all been impressed by what the social networks say they can do. Their targeting capabilities and the level of reporting available surpasses what’s available from traditional media sites. They've been compelling enough to command significant sums for pricey products. 

This episode makes it obvious that we need to broaden the sales discussion to explicitly communicate what we require new marketing partners to do, and to confirm that platform and advertiser are aligned on the importance of keeping campaign results private.