LinkedIn opens Sponsored InMail to all as yet more ad products come to messaging platforms

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It’s gloves off for social media companies that have patiently built audiences for their platforms and weaned them on steady diets of ad-free content: they’re all now starting to double down on ways of monetizing them. Now it’s the turn of LinkedIn, the social network for professionals that’s currently getting acquired by Microsoft for $26.2 billion.

Today, the company is turning on a new self-service for marketers called “Sponsored InMail” — a paid feature that will let marketers query LinkedIn’s database of 476 million users and send relevant groups within it unsolicited messages in LinkedIn’s InMail messaging system.

The news comes in what has been a busy week for social media platforms ramping up “native” marketing experiences in messaging products. Yesterday, Facebook made sponsored messages (where advertisers can pay to send messages) in Messenger widely available after several months of tests. And just earlier today, Viber announced Public Accounts, its own version of business accounts to use the platform for marketing, as well as customer service.

As with the other two, LinkedIn’s Sponsored InMail will see paid messages start to appear in areas of the service that have up to now been reserved primarily for more direct communications that were relatively ad-free. (I write “relatively” because in fact, you could feasibly use the InMail feature, which lets you send messages to people who were not your contacts, to try to sell something. InMail comes with Premium subscriptions, or as an add-on to JobSeeker and Business Plus accounts.)

And for a lucky few of you, you may have already seen Sponsored InMail messages come through to you on LinkedIn.

Sudeep Cherian, a group manager in LinkedIn’s Marketing Solutions group, said the company has been quietly piloting the feature since August with around 100 marketers; it also offered it as a managed service to enterprise customers. The difference now is that the taps have been turned on full-blast, so to speak: it’s now a self-serve option available to any individual or business, large or small.

Those early runs of the product encouraged LinkedIn to roll it out more widely: Cherian said that open rates were around 45% and CTRs in the range of 4-7%.

Sponsored InMail will appear at the top of your inbox in LinkedIn’s messaging service, and Cherian said that the content of these messages will largely be based around calls to action — for example, claiming product offers, or registering for online or live events, or downloading e-books. In other words, not one to one messages that would elicit a reply.

As we have seen with other paid messaging features that bring more marketing into generally ad-free platforms, LinkedIn is also trying to bring in features that will help keep any spammy tendencies in check. In this case of Sponsored InMail, these can only be received by members once every 60 days, and as a user you can completely opt out of seeing any from a specific company or person, or seeing any of them at all. (You can access your settings from within one of the messages.)

Sponsored InMail forms the latest of LinkedIn’s Campaign Manager self-service tools, which also include sponsored content, which appears in people’s main news feeds; and text ads, which run in the right rail as well as in-line.

Other recent launches at LinkedIn, which has continued both to update its existing service as well as forge paths into new areas as it awaits the Microsoft deal to close, have included a platform to track and report salary data; an update to its Endorsements feature; new learning products; and a new way to privately signal that you’re looking for a new job.