Content Shock Therapy: A Completely Biased Diagnosis of LinkedIn's Publishing Platform

Posted on April 3rd 2014

Content Shock Therapy: A Completely Biased Diagnosis of LinkedIn's Publishing Platform

The Doctor is In

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.

Frequency of Social Media Use from Pew Research

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.

davidcheng

David Cheng

CEO, ShareBloc

I'm CEO and co-founder of ShareBloc. ShareBloc is building a community of like-minded professionals who share, curate and discuss business content that matters to them. 

In my prior lives, I worked in investment banking, venture capital, and ran the online research platform for the leading cleantech market research firm.

 

See Full Profile >

Comments

greykite
Posted on April 3rd 2014 at 7:03AM

Hi David - I enjoyed reading your thought-provoking piece. I agree that the general level of content quality on LinkedIn will likely suffer as a result of the open-door policy on Publishing, but in my view that creates an opportunity for those who are prepared to create content that is up there with the best (and I don't put all LinkedIn's Influencers in that category).

It seems clear to me that LinkedIn is intent on building a serious presence in the content-marketing space and its launch earlier this week of Content Scoring and Trending Content reinforces this view. Increased engagement equals, inter allia, more advertising revenue dollars. They still have Pulse to curate the off-site alternative, which for the foreseeable future (and likely forever) offers a much wider choice of relevant content.

You say that "the primary use case for most LinkedIn members is still getting a job." Is that still the case? While I haven't researched the stats lately, anecdotal evidence at least suggests there is more emphasis on marketing products and services (soft marketing, admittedly) than job seeking. While it remains on top of most recruiters' toolboxes for finding people, I suspect recruitment is no longer the members' primary driver. It isn't mine, nor that of the majority of people I engage with there. If you have access to research that shows the hard facts, I'd be interested to see it.

davidcheng
Posted on April 3rd 2014 at 2:38PM

Thanks Mike. Great points and questions.

Marketing solutions (their content-monetization product) is 25% of revenue, whereas recruiting is 55% and premium accounts (which I suspect is a blend of recruiting/marketing) is the remainder. See here: http://press.linkedin.com/about

Remember that people in the sales & marketing community are not the typical use case for the other 277 million members on LinkedIn. Most people don't produce content; they all need jobs though. As a smell test, ask people in your family who have different careers how they use LinkedIn and with what frequency. You can also quickly still see how professional content is being shared. Go to any professional content site (like Social Media Today) and look at the social shares widget. Typically, it's Twitter in the lead, followed by Facebook, LinkedIn or GooglePlus depending on your vertical.

Finally, I hope this post doesn't suggest I'm "anti-LinkedIn." I use it daily, I have friends who work there (at somewhat senior levels) and I think it's a wonderful product. But I know a land grab when I see one and the move towards content publishing is not, in my humble opinion, a strategic move to improve content quality. Rather, it's a move to increase engagement on the site. If I'm a publisher working with LinkedIn, I would tread carefully.

JMAZMortgagePro
Posted on April 3rd 2014 at 5:46PM

I'm a bit of a social media newbie, but hopefully I'm learning. Mike, you appear to be in favor of the new Linkedin publishing platform (or at least willing to entertain the idea). What would you say are the major benefits to publishing your content there as opposed to an entity you own or control? Many of the pieces I have read regarding content marketing stress that it is important to own your own content. 

Mark Traphagen recently commented that the value may be in the audience and content following you elsewhere, but if you own your own site or platform, isn't that the most ideal place to publish content?

I can tell you that nearly all of the engagement I have on LinkedIn is recruitment related. Perhaps that is my profession or just the state my industry is in, but I would say based on my own experiences it is the only tool in many recruiter's toolboxes. 

greykite
Posted on April 4th 2014 at 12:09PM

John, I think you’re being modest – I suspect I’m the newbie in this debate. Yes, I’m in favour of the Publishing platform, although with the reservations that I outlined in my reply to Linda. There is no place for mindless content that just takes up space and buries the nuggets that people can use to help them.

I think I’m fairly typical of a growing number of users who see LinkedIn as a place to do things that aren’t directly related to recruitment. I spent 30 years working in and eventually running bricks-and-mortar businesses. When I grew up, social media was the “Letters to the Editor” column in the local paper, but I look at today’s plethora of platforms from a business perspective. How can they help me engage with people who can use what I have to offer?

Well, nowadays I offer business advice to SMBs and start-ups, many of whom turn to content for information. Since I also write, I use content as a means of (I hope) demonstrating my expertise in specific niches. My single post to date on LinkedIn did exactly that, and it generated engagement well beyond any post on my own blog, including two direct messages from people wanting to continue the discussion offline. To me, that’s an effective use of my time.

Whether you choose to publish on your own platform or on LinkedIn - or both - depends, I believe, on your standalone strength. In my case, it’s not enough to get me noticed (much), so LinkedIn makes sense. I still own the content, although LinkedIn may choose to publish it elsewhere as well. I think Mark Traphagen’s comments are balanced and along the same lines.

Hope this helps ...

davidcheng
Posted on April 4th 2014 at 5:57PM

LinkedIn is doing exactly the right thing. LinkedIn owns the network and if you use their publishing platform, they will promote it over your non-LinkedIn content. That is their right since it's their network.

But if this was the issue of net neutrality and LinkedIn was Comcast and their network was broadband, is the question murkier?

I will use LinkedIn's platform with both eyes wide open. LinkedIn's primary objective (and rightly so) is to get people to STAY on LinkedIn, not to go somewhere else. If that's a problem for your business, then you may want to focus on another social network / distribution platform.

LindaZimmer
Posted on April 3rd 2014 at 6:55PM

David, you articulate such a great question, and it rattles around in my head endlessly as I see "content marketing" taking over the strategies and conversations of networked places. 

In my opinion LinkedIn is missing its opportunities found in its own native - and original - value.  In my work with organizations I find they have a pretty solid understanding of the recruiting value of LinkedIn and of course LinkedIn is doing a great job of leveraging the revenue from that channel.

However, I find the vast majority of LinkedIn members have little or no knowledge of how to meaningful use and derive value from LinkedIn.  By falling back on the "more content for more engagement" model, I fear LinkedIn is creating an environment where members find less value because content overwhelms the connection, expertise and visibility that provides personal value and relevance.  Everyone is doing content marketing and the pressure to put more an more and more effort into creating content to acheive personal branding is doing platforms more harm that good. Professionals who are working find it overwhelming to keep it up, and those looking for work question how diluted their efforts with content become.

LinkedIn is rather uniquely positioned to think more deeply about the individual's professional networking needs and to create features that drive their personal strategies.  The value of having more information when information is already essentially limitless seems questionable.

davidcheng
Posted on April 4th 2014 at 1:24AM

Linda, you hit the nail on the head.

LinkedIn alone is the most uniquely positioned to solve content shock. Unfortunately, because the vast majority of LinkedIn users don't use or derive value from LinkedIn the way power users do, the content will just end up as noise.

It'll be interesting if LinkedIn decides to push Pulse separately, the way Facebook is pushing Paper.

greykite
Posted on April 4th 2014 at 11:41AM

This debate is getting interesting! Linda, I agree that “more content for more engagement” isn’t sustainable if LinkedIn is to remain a valuable professional resource; there’s no point in drowning members in a deluge of dross. Content marketing for its own sake is pointless – but high-quality, informative content, particularly on specialist niche topics, has its place there. How LinkedIn intends to achieve this balance is not clear (to me anyway); I think the decision to open the floodgates has been insufficiently thought through.

As you said in your “Call of the Sirens” article, people – individuals - need content; hopefully it helps them further their professional activities or makes them aware of someone with whom they can connect to get the help they need. That’s the angle that appeals to me.

I can see why it appeals to LinkedIn for different reasons – as David said below, recruiting generates 55% of its revenue, so there’s a serious growth opportunity. I agree entirely that it’s not, as he says, a move to improve content quality – which is what it should be.

greykite
Posted on April 4th 2014 at 12:38PM

Thanks for the reply David. Great discussion here - you certainly don’t come across as anti-LinkedIn.

Almost everything you’ve said aligns with my way of thinking. I put my views on record in a recent post on the CMI blog; my article warns, inter alia, of the deluge of sub-standard content that will likely result from LinkedIn’s open-door policy on publishing.

It’s the “use-case” point that still has me wondering. As I said in my reply to David, I’m a businessman first and a social-media user next – and only lately at that; I don’t see myself as a paid-up member of the sales and marketing community you mention. I’m interested in the power of SM, including LinkedIn, to drive engagement for organizations that truly believe in its potential, and it’s this that has me looking at use cases that are directly related neither to recruitment nor “content-marketing.”

I’ve long been a believer in the strength of brand advocacy. My experience of “staff champions” long before the days of SM and my more recent work with a client in the sector leave me convinced of the opportunity for SM in the process. I see more and more organisations opening up personal social-media networks for business communication, on LinkedIn and elsewhere, although I can’t put numbers to it. As I said before, although recruiters still make good use of LinkedIn, I’m not convinced that the “vast majority” of members still see job-hunting as their primary reason for being there.

Maybe we should take this aspect of the debate offline as it’s not germane to the main thrust of your article! Don’t want to drag things off-topic ...