LinkedIn builds its publishing presence

LinkedIn builds its publishing presence
LinkedIn came of age as the staid social media platform for business professionals reliable, utilitarian and, well, boring.

Unlike Twitter or Facebook, which are hives of message activity that attract constant monitoring, LinkedIn for years warranted little more than an intermittent update to a résumé, or a check on a job search.

Then, in October, LinkedIn began offering its own content, called Influencers, which consists of a select group of people in leadership positions posting their musings on life, careers and the secrets of success in both. Suddenly, LinkedIn was filled with New Age chief executive talk.

Bill Gates, Jeffrey R. Immelt and President Barack Obama are among the more than 250 contributors, none of whom are being compensated with anything other than access to the site's 225 million members. In recent weeks, users were encouraged to read a post by Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, who asserted that a personal assistant was better than a smartphone.

"While gadgets like smartphones and tablets certainly do have a huge positive impact upon my working life, it is the people around me who really make the difference," Branson wrote.

Others offering commentary included Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, who explained why she listens to country music when she travels, and Henry Blodget, who wrote about why American corporations are like Scrooge when it comes to sharing their wealth.

The clichéd nature of some of the observations (work at something you love), the fact that they sometimes come as neat lists ("7 tips for working more happily with your colleagues") and the persistence with which the site promotes them has subjected the program to some mockery. "Why is LinkedIn emailing us about Mark Cuban's 6-year-old colonoscopy?" The New York Observer asked cheekily in a February headline.

But Daniel Roth, the executive editor of LinkedIn, said that Influencers is catnip to executive-suite aspirants and is transforming viewer engagement on the site. Visitors viewed 63 percent more pages in the first quarter of 2013, ending in May, than they did in the quarter a year earlier, according to the earnings report. Roth said traffic to all its news products had increased eightfold since Influencers was introduced, although he would not say from what base it was measured. Top posts routinely record more than 100,000 views, according to the site's own accounting.

With obvious delight, Roth conveyed what may be the most telling measure of success: "We have a long list of CEOs who are asking to get in," he said.

Influencers is not the only step LinkedIn is taking to entice users to spend more time on the site. More than half of the company's income still comes from the selling of recruiting tools. To this end, LinkedIn has added features like rich media, which lets people include video and graphics to their profiles.

Still, in a conference call with analysts in May, Jeff Weiner, the company's chief executive, reiterated that his goal was to make the company "the definitive professional publishing platform." That's a big challenge in a market that includes publishing titans like Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal as well as sites like The Huffington Post, which also regularly publishes contributions by the business elite.

So far LinkedIn has exceeded its own conservative earnings forecast for every quarter since it went public in 2011; it recently announced first-quarter net income of $22.6 million, up from $5 million the year before. Nevertheless, the stock is down nearly 5 percent since first-quarter earnings were announced last month - largely on concerns that the advertising models will not mature as quickly as hoped.

"While the Influencer program certainly helps LinkedIn's advertising revenue," said Kerry Rice, a principal with Needham & Co., the stock is falling because some investors are worried that advertising revenue is still growing more slowly than their robust hopes.

In addition to Influencer, LinkedIn's content includes articles produced by what it says are hundreds of thousands of other publishers, as varied as smaller niche publications like Quartz and national newspapers like The Times and The Journal. The content is fed to members based on what is trending online and also what LinkedIn editors think readers would like to see.

The hope is that users grow addicted to checking their news feeds, which are adjusted to their interests. The company will also weave sponsored content into feeds; it is already testing a pilot program that includes articles and videos from Shell, Xerox and American Express, among others.

"My personal goal is that within the next six months, no one in the business world starts their day without knowing what's trending on LinkedIn," Roth said.

Because writers are not paid, Influencers is relatively cheap to produce. Contributors are attracted by the ability to connect with a large audience of business professionals, while being only lightly edited. (Most executives insist they write their posts by themselves.) LinkedIn also trades on the executives' vanity.

Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of Redfin, an online real estate platform, said he wanted to be an Influencer on LinkedIn partly because his competitors were posting. He said he also liked being able to reach others in his industry to argue his points. But the most compelling part, he said, may be ego.

LinkedIn immediately reports how many hits each post gets, which is addictive to those attracting a lot of traffic. "It created a feedback loop that has turned me into a gerbil turning on the wheel," said Kelman, only part jokingly. "Part of it is the glory. I have met other CEOs and we ask each other whether we have better things to do, but if you want people to know about your company you have to be there. It is just a new competitive weapon."

© 2013, The New York Times News Service


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