It’s been a few weeks since LinkedIn first opened their publishing platform to the plebs. The blogging soapbox was previously limited to influencers like Richard Branson but now anyone with a LinkedIn account can be elevated to the same threshold (or is the reverse true?). I was lukewarm about the release initially and after a few weeks, my views have not changed but have been reinforced. As of the end of last year, over 1.5 million unique publishers already publish on LinkedIn’s platform, reaching 277 million professionals in 147 different industries. If content was already being shared effectively on LinkedIn, what is the rationale for the publishing platform? To answer that question, we have to diagnosis the problem LinkedIn is solving. Let’s visit the patient’s history.
Tell Me Where It Hurts
In the last quarterly investor analyst call, LinkedIn saw a 50% increase in organic engagement. The company attributes this growth to their emphasis in growing their publishing platform with acquisitions in SlideShare and Pulse and the introduction of features like Influencers. In spite of these developments, LinkedIn engagement continues to underperform compared to their social media competitors like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Nevertheless, it’s clear LinkedIn has made incredible strides since this report by the Wall Street Journal two years ago, where the average minutes per visitor for LinkedIn was 17 minutes compared to Facebook’s 405 minutes. LinkedIn knew it had an engagement problem and they expertly made large moves to cure this malady.
We Got a Pulse!
In 2011, LinkedIn Today launched with the strategic hiring of Dan Roth, Fortune’s former editor. Dan and his team of editors worked with machine-learning algorithms to deliver relevant content to LinkedIn members. To bolster engagement, LinkedIn then acquired SlideShare in 2012 for $119 million, the pre-eminent platform for online presentation sharing. LinkedIn wasn’t done with acquisitions. Recognizing a need to deliver a high-quality mobile/tablet experience, LinkedIn acquired Pulse for $90 million in 2013. Pulse’s incredible value proposition was simple: they could deliver relevant content from more than 750 leading publishers to their 30 million users. LinkedIn Today re-branded as Pulse and LinkedIn members could now get content from anywhere on the web delivered to them through the web or mobile app. But engagement still lagged.
First Do No Harm
The question I’m dancing around is even with the best professional content properties, the best machine-learning algorithms and the largest professional network, why is LinkedIn having a tough time increasing their engagement numbers? Let me revisit the last quarterly call. When asked why user engagement was down two consecutive quarters, CEO Jeff Weiner and CFO/SVP Steve Sordello gave some great answers, but one stood out:
“[The Endorsements product] has reached a very large scale and there was an effort to improve the quality on endorsements, which impacted transactional volume somewhat. So part of the delta, for example, our unique visitor growth was around 31%. That probably would have been 40%, 41% without that change.”
LinkedIn had to throttle back on some of their engagement levers to maintain the quality of their feed (sound familiar?).
LinkedIn’s biggest problem is a product of their success. As a platform for managing your professional profile, LinkedIn is without parallel. Their most successful application continues to be their Talent Solutions product, which represents 55% of their revenue. The primary use case for most LinkedIn members is still getting a job. In addition, as you may notice from your LinkedIn network, it includes connections from all walks of your professional life. I work at an Internet startup in the b2b content space, but because of my work and academic history, I have connections to solar engineers, doctors, teachers, chefs and even one celebrity. Pulse’s machine learning algorithm has to balance delivering me content that is relevant to my industry while serving me updates from my professional network, most of which is not relevant to my work. LinkedIn has built a wildly successful professional social graph but it does not yet have a comparably successful interest graph. This is the very same problem Facebook (another victim of its massive success) is facing and trying to solve with their mobile app, Paper.
The Doctor is In
Which begs the question: Do we need another publishing platform? LinkedIn users could already post their content from their Wordpress, Tumblr or Medium blog and receive relevant analytics on engagement. However, by posting content from their own site or other publishers, LinkedIn loses the coveted “time spent on site” engagement metric to the source. In fact, because professional content tends to be higher-quality and long-form, LinkedIn already has a history of delivering great engagement post-click. However, if LinkedIn hosted the content, engagement on LinkedIn would increase. To boost their own engagement metrics, is LinkedIn creating a direct competitor to their publishing partners by taking away from their referrals?
I readily admit as the founder of ShareBloc, I’m completely biased. We believe in content curation and sharing, which means our content links directly to the publisher, similar to StumbleUpon or Reddit. My opinions are completely my own, speculative and not substantiated by LinkedIn. But if I ran a $22 billion public company with 277 million users and I needed to increase engagement, I’d do exactly the same thing.