The Many Faces of LinkedIn

Having taken a look at LinkedIn’s financials, I also want to drill down a bit and look at the product from a user perspective.

LinkedIn is clearly going to have an extremely good IPO, whether they end up valued at $3 billion or $4 billion.  So it’s odd to say they’ve done a bad job of leveraging their assets, but it’s true.  The reason is that LinkedIn is really three or four very different products bundled into one.  The company has done a good job of developing and exploiting the recruiting product, but they’ve been pretty mediocre on the other ones, whether due to constrained resources or a lack of attention.

User Behavior

LinkedIn isn’t a frequent activity for most people.  With around 100 million registered users, they get 75 million unique visitors per month.  So 25% or more of users don’t show up at all.  The site got about 5.5 billion page views in Q4 2010, which comes out to 61 million a day.  Most of those page views probably come from a few hardcore users.  Say 5% of the users look at 10 pages a day (probably not a stretch for recruiters and salespeople), and that’s already 50 million page views per day.  By implication, the rest of the users aren’t doing much.

Now the question is why those usage patterns look like they do.  In my mind, it boils down to how well LinkedIn addresses its various use cases.

Networking

I believe the majority of users get little concrete value out of their LinkedIn networks.  They collect contacts because they feel like they should, but they just don’t know what to do with them.  LinkedIn needs to come up with better ways to activate users.  For example, if I want to change jobs in a year, what should I be doing right now on LinkedIn and elsewhere to prepare for that?  Most people, myself included, need more hand-holding to manage their professional networks, and LinkedIn would be the perfect company to provide that.  Think of it as personal CRM.

Apart from direct connections, LinkedIn’s primary networking feature is the “introduction.”  Almost no one I know uses it, and there are a couple of behavioral reasons why, in my opinion.  First, it seems that only people who can’t get “regular” introductions go for LinkedIn introductions, devaluing the entire concept.  Adverse selection.  Second, I think people see more convenient introductions as less meaningful, the same way a Facebook happy birthday wall post means less than a card or a phone call (see Andrew Mason in this video at 4:00 for more on that).  So by making the introduction easier, LinkedIn potentially makes it less valuable.  I think they can actually fix both of these problems by assigning some kind of notional cost to an introduction, along with an incentive for a meaningful one.  It’s time to gamify the introduction.

I could go on and on.  Could I get a networking workflow, please?  How about buying Plancast and integrating conference attendance with my professional network?

Advice and Information

“Groups” are LinkedIn’s feature for facilitating interest networks, like pricing professionals or entrepreneurs.  I’ve always found those forums to be low in value because people primarily try to get airtime or promote their services rather than providing truly useful information.  It’s gotten worse recently since LinkedIn allowed group owners to open up groups.  I’m sure LinkedIn gets more page views and advertising revenue as a result, but the amount of literal spam has gone up significantly.  There may be functionality to help group owners limit spam, but in practice the owners aren’t necessarily doing enough.

It’s difficult to get both depth and breadth on any information source on the web.  As soon as you open up the community, you tend to get least-common-denominator information and spam.  StackExchange and Quora are doing a decent job.  Maybe LinkedIn should outsource their discussions to one of those companies?

Research

I always do a LinkedIn search on people before I meet them. However, for real research on companies or industries, LinkedIn isn’t that great.  Company pages are a nice step, but LinkedIn has to tread the line between providing useful information and exposing so much data that companies protect themselves by putting less information on the site.  It’s a bit odd, but research may be a use case better left untouched.

Inbound Leads

I hesitate to even bring this one up because it’s been a non-event for me.  Once in a blue moon, someone contacts me for work or expertise through my LinkedIn profile.  The LinkedIn profile could be a hub for marketing yourself professionally.  As it is, that honor appears to have been taken by a combination of Twitter and the personal blog.  Of course, you can’t be all things to all people, but I think LinkedIn needs to take a second look at serving as a personal marketing engine, generating inbound leads for work or other opportunities.  (Or maybe I’m just revealing that I’m not in demand.  Software developers may have a very different experience with this one.)

Lead Generation

Clearly, LinkedIn is nailing this use case for recruiters.  In my past life as a consultant and my current one as an entrepreneur, I’ve found the site to be less than optimal.  One big problem is that there’s no differentiation among connections.  If I’m trying to get an introduction to someone, how do I choose between all of our mutual contacts?  Third-degree connections are even worse:  I’m connected to 29 people who know someone who knows Niklas Zennstrom.  After a while, I feel like I’m playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon.  It’s just not useful.

To make it useful, LinkedIn should invest in refining its browsing and search functionality.  Something like Gmail’s priority inbox, but for connections, would also be extremely useful.  I want to know which connections I should actually contact to get an introduction, as opposed to the “I met them once five years ago, and they don’t remember who I am” connections that make up a large portion of the LinkedIn graph.

The Many Faces of LinkedIn

The more I think about LinkedIn, the more I’m convinced that it’s really 3-4 different products.  The company has done a pretty good job with the recruiting product, but most of the others are sub-optimal.  If I were Reid Hoffman, I would create a product team entirely compensated and promoted based on helping the “average” user.  Otherwise, another company will eventually come along and offer a better pure networking product (Hashable?), and LinkedIn’s biggest asset, its user base, will start to be undermined.  I hope the upcoming IPO enables LinkedIn to truly blow out its product development roadmap and address these various needs more fully.


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