LinkedIn- stuck between a meme and a hard place

LinkedIn has been a part of our professional lives for over twelve years now and though it never quite blew up like Facebook or Twitter, it was never really meant to anyway. It’s goal has always been to be the best place for people to go when they want to connect and network with people in their professional field. We all know how it works by now. You set up your LinkedIn profile, make yourself look incredibly employable and sit back and hope either your professional reputation is solidified or you receive a career kickstart in the right direction. In many ways LinkedIn has always felt like a social network that wanted to provide a certain style of interaction, seeking to avoid an open-platform model that could taint it’s professional-heavy rhetoric. It was always about the quality of discussion versus a high quantity of discussion happening. So it is odd that it is now starting to feel less like a business networking site and more like the next Facebook, a platform that has devolved from it’s original model. In reality it seems the problem they are facing is the same any fast-growing company deals with: advertising revenue.

There are a lot of stats that make LinkedIn sound like a very attractive platform for marketers. They boast 364 million members, representing over 200 countries and they gain two new members per second, with 39 million students and recent college graduates signed up representing LinkedIn’s fastest-growing demographic. This last stat is key, and it is clear why LinkedIn are keen promote it as well. They seem to be wary of going down the road of Facebook, a social media platform whose audience’s average age has steadily increased in recent years, haemorrhaging younger members in the process. So it is in LinkedIn’s best interest to reach millennials not just because they are the next generation of CEO’s and entrepreneurs but because they are much more active online on a daily basis, a factor which LinkedIn needs to focus on in the future.

With advertising revenue being as important as it is for social platforms, there is one stat that is damning against LinkedIn’s current structure. The social network boasts 187 million unique monthly visitors but shockingly the average amount of time spent by users on the site is only 17 minutes per month, despite 35% of users visiting the site daily. Taking into account the fact that the site tries to push longer form content, then this number is exceedingly paltry compared to Facebook, who get an average of 21 minutes per user in simply one day. This LinkedIn stat not only fails to paint the image of a site that is desirable to advertise on but instead highlights the truth of how LinkedIn operates on a daily basis. In many ways it could be viewed as more of an online database than as a social network. The truth is that the majority of users set up their profile, upload their most professional looking photo and fill out their information to make themselves seem both professionally adept and desirable to recruiters. Once this stage has passed then most users are more than happy to simply let their profile sit on the site without curation for long periods at a time, only returning on those rare occasions they feel a job change is in order.

With this in mind it is not surprising to find a shift occurring in usage of the platform, as it makes a push toward accessibility. There is now an increasing likelihood that when I go to view my LinkedIn feed there will be as many motivational posters or memes as there will be articles and content relevant to my reading preferences. I can’t count the amount of times I have seen a recruiter use the Liam Neeson phone call scene from Taken as a method to highlight how they will find their next great employee on LinkedIn. This loosening of the platform may hurt it’s message but it might be a necessary evil to combat the lack of time users are spending on the site, as a pocket of the user base actively seeks to mix in a little bit of fun with their content.

The one thing LinkedIn have in their favour is, thankfully, their core user base. Though there are a large number of people content to share jovial memes and motivational posters there are still 30,000 long form posts going up weekly, a number that bodes well in the future. It was this type of content that LinkedIn hoped would be the basis for conversation on their site in its inception; thought provoking content that informs and advises, and pushes professionals to interact with the site on a daily basis. Though even this is at threat as well, as LinkedIn has opened their platform up to Sponsored Content, with enormous financial benefits having followed.

This brings forth questions of control and quality. Sponsored Content may be the company’s fastest growing source of revenue but it pushes them closer to a similar model employed by Facebook. It might only be a matter of time before a users feed is filled with as many advertisements as shares from connections. Considering the previously mentioned stat that the average user spends only seventeen minutes on the site per month and LinkedIn may be faced with an even more drastic imbalance between advertising and user generated content. Quality control is also an issue. With an increase of meme and motivational posters being shared from the user side it might only be a matter of time before advertisers use similar tropes in order to blend in with the diminishing tone of voice, a reality that the platform needs to avoid at all costs. It will be an interesting test of LinkedIn’s resolve, as it may come down to a battle between money and quality control. Can they really sell their share holders on the purity of platform versus freedom of advertising argument?

LinkedIn seems to have found itself living in a difficult reality. In order to make advertising more desirable they need people to want to spend time on their site regularly, and even though allowing playful content that pleases a section of their user base may not fit with their rhetoric, it might be essential for their growth. After all no platform that boasts 364 millions users can afford to be niche. It is an unavoidable reality that a push toward mass popularity for a site that holds quality of content high on their list of desirable characteristics is a poisoned chalice. LinkedIn may have a difficult choice ahead of them between allowing their platforms content to devolve in certain areas or risk alienating the types of people who like a good meme with their morning coffee.

By Ciaran, Aug 2015