What happened when the world’s shiniest professional networking site partnered up with one of the UK’s 'left-behind' seaside towns?

By Ryan Herman,

In the 1990s, a trip to Grimsby Town FC’s Blundell Park stadium was a regular fixture if your team played in what is now called the English Football League Championship. Back then, football hacks from the south would often write “they won’t fancy going to Grimsby” if a team was battling to avoid relegation from the Premier League. Grimsby was thought of as cold, wet and miserable – suitable punishment for teams dropping down a division.

The town was back in the spotlight in 2014 when comedian Sacha Baron Cohen released a film called Grimsby. The movie wasn’t as negative as some first feared, but it wasn’t exactly Notting Hill either. In one scene, a road sign reads ‘Welcome to Grimsby. Twin City to Chernobyl, Ukraine’. (Don’t worry, it’s actually twinned with the German port town of Bremerhaven.)

Then, in 2016, Grimbarians were on the receiving end of metropolitan mockery when the town voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. The local fishing industry has long lobbied for a free trade agreement with Europe, and for some voters, choosing Leave was payback for what happened in the ’70s. They will tell you that Britain joining the Common Market gave European trawlers unfettered access to the UK’s waters, destroying the local fishing industry. In their eyes, the town never really recovered.

To make matters worse, something profound happens when a town feels it is being subjected to persistently negative headlines and sneering comments: it becomes more inward-looking, feels isolated and ultimately loses confidence.

Half a world away

Grimsby isn’t the only one with an image problem though. LinkedIn, the glossy, Silicon Valley-based social network for well-connected professionals, also has issues – albeit at the opposite end of the scale. It has a reputation as a place for extending your network of contacts, applying for roles, bigging up your achievements and posting inspiring tales about how “the best thing that ever happened to me was screwing up that job interview...” It probably wouldn’t be your first port of call if you wanted a job as a local probation officer.

“We are known as a site that helps higher-end professionals,” says Ngaire Moyes, global brand marketing and corporate communications leader at the social network. “And yet LinkedIn has 27 million members in the UK. The total workforce is only 31.5 million, so we know we have people from all walks of life on the platform. We wanted to demonstrate that LinkedIn is a place for all workers in the UK.”

Moyes was watching the BBC2 docudrama The Mighty Redcar when she had the idea that LinkedIn should base a campaign around a town like the one featured in the series. The Mighty Redcar followed two generations living in a once-thriving mining community in North Yorkshire. Moyes recalls “seeing kids brimming with talent and potential” and adds: “There are talented people everywhere, but not everyone gets the same access to the right opportunities.”

“The main thing we wanted to explore, and it really was an experiment because we didn’t know if it was going to work, was whether the LinkedIn community – which we think is quite a powerful thing among our existing members when it comes to helping them create opportunities – could help new members in a place like Grimsby, which has had economic challenges for many decades.

“We also chose Grimsby as it has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the UK, at 5.3%, while confidence among jobseekers was ranked among the lowest in the country,” she explains.

“There is a government initiative called the Greater Grimsby Town Deal, which is said to be worth £67m and is designed to create thousands of new jobs and homes. Alongside that initiative, we wanted to see if LinkedIn could help give people the confidence and the connections that would enable them to go after what they really wanted when it came to their work and business aspirations.”

Hitting the streets

The month-long ‘Grimsby United’ campaign started with representatives from LinkedIn meeting community leaders, the MP and some of those with the inside line on the local economy.

That included Dave Laister, business editor at The Grimsby Telegraph. “LinkedIn came to have a chat with us about what the campaign was aiming to do,” he recalls. “It’s nice for Grimsby to be in the spotlight. It has struggled to shake off its reputation as a run-down fishing port, but offshore wind has brought a big renaissance, millions are being spent to reindustrialise the area, and LinkedIn tapped into that.”

“It was important to demonstrate that we weren’t just some organisation swooping in,” Moyes explains. “We needed to understand the themes that were affecting people, because they feel like the opportunities have not come Grimsby’s way.

“We worked with BMB, our main creative agency, along with Headland, our corporate PR, and Brands2Life, which is our social agency, and we canvassed on the streets to identify local people who would be new to LinkedIn and then asked if we could follow and film them.

“We felt the films we produced were cinematic in style and emotional. In a cinema, you’ve got an audience in a good mindset to watch and listen to something of that nature.”

The short films aired in more than 500 cinemas around the country at the end of September and have generated seven million views on social media. Crucially, they don’t try to portray the town as something it’s not.

First, we see Darren Kenyon, one of the town’s last fishermen. He picked up new business from restaurants on the back of the film, which shows him exploring the possibility of exporting crabs wholesale to China.

The cameras also followed Chelsey Giles, an aspiring care worker who lacked confidence. LinkedIn connected her with a mentor, who helped her to realise the strength of her existing skill set, including a Level 2 qualification in Health and Social Care and a Level 1 certificate in Childcare.

Lasting impact

“Following various conversations with the community, we wanted to leave some sort of legacy for the town,” Moyes explains. “Then we thought, ‘Well, what’s the heart of this community?’ Like many places in the UK, it’s the football club.”

A sponsorship deal with Grimsby Town FC will continue until the end of this season, and various ‘takeovers’ have promoted local job vacancies on the club’s scoreboard, the match-day programme, beer mats and even napkins. After the sponsorship deal was announced, Grimsby Town manager Michael Jolley revealed that he got his first job as a head coach through LinkedIn. (After an expletive-laden confrontation with the local BBC radio station, Jolley is currently back on LinkedIn trying to find a new role.)

The campaign’s legacy extends beyond the films and the sponsorship deal too. “Over the past year, we have run another initiative where we go into towns and cities, set up in a local pub and brand it as The Linked Inn. We invite recruiters and members who are seeking new jobs,” says Moyes.

“Blundell Park stadium seemed like the ideal venue to bring together 100 local LinkedIn members, along with a number of local employers including the NHS Trust and Docks Beers, a craft brewery based in Grimsby.”

For Docks Beers co-founder Will Douglas, the LinkedIn connection made perfect sense. “We are a rapidly growing business that needs people to help us grow further, and The Linked Inn gave us the opportunity to meet people who can help us do that,” he says.

Moyes recalls: “I met a woman who wanted to find work as a probation officer. We did a search for roles in the Grimsby area. To her surprise, and mine as well, there were lots of opportunities available. Seeing the delight on her face was lovely.”

Finding people new jobs is LinkedIn’s short-term measure of success, but the ‘Grimsby United’ campaign was about more than that. It was also a welcome piece of positive PR for the town in its running battle against negativity.

And it made for good press for LinkedIn too. “‘Is LinkedIn a place I feel I belong?’ is one of the brand metrics that we track,” Moyes explains. “Through the cinema campaign alone, we saw a 16-point lift in that. So it was very effective for us, and it’s something we want to explore further.

“I think it’s really important to pay attention to what’s going on around us. When you’re doing something with a community, you get more from it.”

A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2020.