LinkedIn Is a Stealth Media Company and People Are the Brands

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LinkedIn arrived in our lives in 2003, a year before Facebook. It slowly developed its niche as everyone instinctively knew that Facebook just wasn’t workplace-appropriate, as your friends started to upload and tag all those photos of you from certain sorts of theme parties from your days as a carefree undergraduate.

LinkedIn, by contrast, was for responsible, drunk-free networking and job hunting; and for people in sales, it was a gold mine of information to develop leads and make those cold calls a little less frosty.

Sure, LinkedIn also provided the opportunity for users to post updates and whatnot, but it was never seen as a platform for content creation the way that Facebook or Tumblr were, right? Well, maybe once upon a time... but these days, it's also become something of a stealth media company. People in the business world are using their LinkedIn profiles as platforms for generating and cultivating an audience and a brand. And LinkedIn in turn is organizing that free content into channels you can subscribe to. The result is a powerful media platform optimized for the publishers' audience.

So who is taking advantage of this new media reality? Which famous executives and moguls have the most followers? Who is using it in surprising new ways? Here’s a working list of some top LinkedIn power users that caught our eye:

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Richard Branson

It’s everybody’s favorite billionaire, Virgin CEO Richard Branson. Broadcasting to his 2.2 million followers, Branson is using his LinkedIn platform to argue for the end of the War on Drugs: “Millions of otherwise productive lives are wasted and lost in jail for marijuana possession and other nonviolent drug violations. California could raise an estimated US $1.4B in annual revenue if it taxed and regulated the sale of marijuana – so imagine the revenue that is keeping the underworld in business.”

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Jack Welsh

Formerly the CEO of GE, Welsh has made a brand of himself as a straight-talking public executive, free to speak his mind now that he’s no longer accountable to shareholders. He’s not always right, but he is always Jack Welsh, which makes him a natural fit as an original content creator for LinkedIn and his 975,000 followers. He also co-bylines much of his posts with his wife, Suzy. Here are the Welches thoughts on How to Think Like a Leader: “Nothing you do anymore as an individual matters except how you nurture and support your team and help its members increase their self-confidence.”

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Ariana Huffington

One of the most powerful women in online media, why would Ariana need to create content for an online platform not named after herself? Don’t know the answer to that, but 696,000 people on LinkedIn see value in it, so there you go. Here she is introducing a new Huff Post office, this one in French and in North Africa: “That's where Al Huffington Post Maghreb comes in. As both a journalistic outlet and a blogging platform, we will be telling the most important stories in the region, and at the same time, inviting the people of the Maghreb to tell their stories themselves.”

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Ari Emanuel

The brother of Rahm and Zeke, Ari was the founder of the Endeavor talent agency and is now the co-CEO of WME. What sort of original content does he publish exclusively to followers of his LinkedIn page? Stuff like this: “I always believe in getting to the point. And the point of this is to get you to buy Brothers Emanuel. Is LinkedIn the right platform to do a plug for my brother’s book? Probably not. But (NSFW) it, I’m doing it anyway.” He's only published 4 pieces but clearly he gets a lot of mileage from them with 164,000 followers.

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Deepak Chopra

Proving that LinkedIn can even be made to fit the needs of New Age spiritualism, Deepak Chopra has 925,000 LinkedIn users following his page, perhaps with the promise that if they just visualize what they want, then it will come in the mail. Here is a recent post: “Five Ways that Meditation Can Make You Happier and More Successful.”

If you wagered that the call-to-action at the bottom of this high-minded post would include the name-dropping of Oprah Winfrey, then you’re our big winner: “On August 5, Oprah Winfrey and I will be launching the next all-new, 21-Day Meditation Challenge, Miraculous Relationships. There is still time to register and join the more than one million people who have participated to date and benefitted from the many gifts of meditation.” Not surprisingly, Deepak is prolific with 56 published articles on LinkedIn.

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Jeff Weiner

The CEO of LinkedIn has a much more boring online presence than the other guy named Weiner, but Jeff is making the most of his platform as he broadcasts his content to his 600,000 followers. In this post, “How to Solve the Other Jobs Crisis,” Jeff does what other CEO’s usually avoid at all costs: wading into politics to give President Obama advice on how to bring down the unemployment rate: “While unemployment has since fallen from 9.1% to 7.6% and the number of available jobs continues to increase, the same three solutions - improvements to our education system (primary school and vocational), immigration reform, and investment in our digital infrastructure - have even greater relevance today.”

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Becky Quick

The co-anchor of CNBC’s Squawk Box, Becky uses her LinkedIn platform to bring her TV guests closer to her 106,000 followers. Here she is taking her LinkedIn followers’ questions for Warren Buffett and getting them answered. Here is Buffett responding to a question about the new levels of dysfunction in Congress: “It seems to be that's the real problem in the House … that you don't have two parties, you have three parties,” he argued - conservatives, moderate Republicans, and Democrats.

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T. Boone Pickens

LinkedIn is a perfect platform for a man like T. Boone - an executive with a public profile but no company of his own to act as a megaphone for his messaging. But with 345,000 followers on LinkedIn, who needs a PR department? T. Boone can do it himself, here using the high price of gasoline to remind us of the need for natural gas: “If you have a vehicle, you’ve seen what’s happening to gasoline prices. They’re going up, and in a hurry. As you may have seen on CNBC this morning, average national prices rose 12 cents in the past week alone. Take a look at this video and you’ll have a better idea of why it’s happening. And what the solution is.”

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Beth Comstock

The CMO of GE, Beth Comstock is followed by 59,000 LinkedIn users. Here she is talking about all the advice she got from Jack Welsh, because well, it’s GE: “Imagine my surprise when he called me into his office that day and admonished me for being too efficient. My zeal to do everything on my to-do list - along with my reserved, even shy nature - made me come across as abrupt and cold...”

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Clara Shih

She’s the CEO of Hearsay Social, the author of The Facebook Era, and 82,000 LinkedIn users are following her. Here is a personal post from her sharing with her readers those that inspired and motivated her from her family to her professional life: “From Hong Kong to Chicago to San Francisco, from Stanford to Salesforce.com to Hearsay Social, my professional life has certainly been filled with its fair share of ups and downs. Without a doubt, I would not be where I am today without the inspiring and intelligent role models and mentors that have helped me along the way.”

You'll find a longer list of LinkedIn influencers and publishers here.