01 September, 2010

How Linkedin Must Change: Adapting To The Facebook Effect

Linkedin’s battle plan has not survived first contact with the enemy. It was a good plan and it would have worked except for one thing they didn’t anticipate: The Facebook Effect. No, not the book by David Kirkpatrick – though I recommend it.

Linkedin didn’t anticipate that Facebook, a social networking platform Linkedin didn’t see as a direct competitor, would so change the expectations of Linkedin account holders that Linkedin’s distinctions as a more relationship-based, professional networking site would actually become liabilities as Linkedin users discovered that they liked – even if they shouldn’t – using Facebook as an everything site – social and professional. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, but it has. In a world with no Facebook, Linkedin’s attempt to legislate proper, professional networking through technology and functionality that keeps people apart unless they are properly introduced through a mutual connection or unless they “meet” in the same Linkedin group, might very well have worked, but that’s not the world we live in so Linkedin’s battle plan didn’t survive contact with Facebook and it’s time Linkedin acknowledges that the Facebook effect has so changed user expectations that Linkedin must make some changes. Linkedin’s plan to avoid direct competition with the site that started in a college dorm as a way to facilitate “hooking up” or taking classes with cute girls hasn’t worked. Linkedin’s plan to occupy a different, more purely business/professional space hasn’t survived in a world where Facebook users like Facebook so much that they use it for every kind of networking – social and professional.

With the exception of Reid Hoffman and other investors and shareholders who stand to make $million$ from a Linkedin IPO, few people have promoted and defended Linkedin more than I have. I’ve promoted Linkedin in my blog. I’ve privately tutored Linkedin novices and newbies. I wear the Linkedin lapel pin. I often point out to people who haven’t logged on to Linkedin for so long that they can’t remember their Linkedin password that some of Linkedin’s business-friendly features are far superior to Facebook’s features. For example, when I recruit a new Linkedin user who is willing to sit down with me at a wi-fi hot spot and let me show them how to use Linkedin, I point out that if, for example, I want to open an office in Poughkeepsie and I need a realtor, a sales rep and a ops manager in Poughkeepsie, Linkedin allows me to find all the realtors, sales reps and managers in Poughkeepsie who are part of my network. Pretty neat. You can’t do that in Facebook.

There’s just one problem: Linkedin’s business-friendly features aren’t enough to make most users spend less time with Facebook and more time with Linkedin and, since Linkedin’s value as an acquisition or IPO will largely be determined by its ability to get people to log on and stay on the site for hours instead of minutes, everyday instead of once a week, Linkedin’s plan to avoid direct competition with Facebook has simply not survived the reality on the ground.

Here are a few of the reasons people with Linkedin accounts spend most of their online networking time on Facebook:

In Facebook, you can pretty much message anybody you can see. In Linkedin, the only people you can message with the free account are people with whom you are directly connected and people with whom you share a group. What I’m about to say should embarrass the hell out of Reid Hoffman and others who stand to make a pile of cash when LInkedin is purchased by Rupert Murdoch or when it goes public: When I want to invite Linkedin users to my Linking Liberally group, I sometimes can’t find a way to message them in Likedin so I resort to finding and messaging them in Facebook. Yeah, that’s right: I am using Facebook to invite people to my Linkedin group because I can’t get to them through Linkedin.

Here’s another thing that makes people spend more time on Facebook than on Linkedin: In Facebook, there’s no punishment or penalty for trying to network with people you don’t know very well. In Linkedin, if I invite somebody to connect and they forget that they met me at a trade show last week and click “I don’t know this person”, Linkedin might punish me by making me provide an email address each time I invite someone to connect. Yes, I understand the theory behind Linkedin’s attempt to legislate proper networking but this Linkedin plan for proper networking simply hasn’t survived contact with a competitor they didn’t even see as a competitor.

It’s time for Linkedin to acknowledge that their battle plan hasn’t survived the Facebook effect. Here are two changes Linkedin should make immediately:

First, Linkedin needs to facilitate, not impede or regulate, communication between Linkedin account holders. Enable messaging between all Linkedin users. Let account holders opt out of such promiscuous messaging if they wish, but let the rest of us communicate.

Second, Linkedin needs to stop punishing people for trying to connect with people they don’t know.

Your plan to subdivide the online networking space into separate “professional” and “social” sectors simply hasn’t survived the Facebook effect. It was a good plan but it’s time to adapt to reality on the ground.

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