What does LinkedIn want to be? Their tagline is: “The world’s largest professional network”. Their rather clunky meta description adds: “A networking tool to find connections to recommended job candidates, industry experts and business partners.”
Their (publicly stated) product strategy is “to create value for members by connecting them to opportunity”.
But LinkedIn has an image problem. A common perception is that the site is full of self-promotional bullshit - that the voices who dominate are the ones we don’t really want to pay attention to.
This is in contrast to sites like Twitter or Medium, where all the clever people instinctively seem to go when they feel the urge to share something clever.
Why is this? LinkedIn is one of the most popular social networks in the world, with around 400 million members and 100 million monthly active users. Most working people you know have an account. Most of them are not self-promoting douchebags.
When I asked people in my LinkedIn network to tell me how they would describe LinkedIn to someone who had never heard of it, responses included: “professional relationship management software”, “your networked resume”, and “Facebook for professionals”.
Most people see LinkedIn, initially, as a useful place to publish their CV/resume. It’s also a digital Rolodex. Beyond this, it’s a way to “connect” and “network” with professional contacts.
LinkedIn makes roughly 60% of its $3bn revenue from its “Talent Solutions” division (fees paid by recruiters for job listings and other services). The other 40% is evenly split between non-job advertising and premium subscriptions.
The future success of all three of these business units relies on growing the number of users, increasing engagement/usage per user, and using data more effectively.
But LinkedIn has some growth and engagement issues. Last month shares dropped by 43% after the company issued a weaker than expected revenue forecast for 2016 ($3.6bn against an anticipated $3.9bn). Their unique monthly visitors didn’t grow at all over the second half of 2015. And Q4 2015 page views were down for just the second time in the past 16 quarters.
Growth will continue to slow if LinkedIn doesn’t address some of the big problems it has with content and user experience.
So, Linkedin, if you’re listening - here’s what I think you need to prioritise:
1) Sort out the newsfeed
The homepage newsfeed is currently a shambles. There’s no logical explanation for it.
The layout of the feed is dissonant. There are images, headlines, faces, logos, partially visible summaries and comments jumbled all over the place. Way too much information.
Spending time in the LinkedIn newsfeed is not enjoyable or engaging. It’s rather painful.
I see random items that someone I barely know has “liked”. Part of the problem is that Linkedin (seemingly) has very poor knowledge of who among my connections I respect most or am closest to.
There is lots of “sponsored content”, designed to fool me. Of course I ignore it, but it distracts and slows me down.
There is content that is “trending”, but it’s rarely anything of much significance or quality. The algorithms are failing.
There are ”Stories you can’t miss today” from LinkedIn Pulse (their blogging platform), which aren’t related to my interests, location or network. Pulse posts by people who are in my network bizarrely appear in a tab in the top navigation rather than the main newsfeed.
There are jobs, ads for LinkedIn Premium, and other types of junk, and it all comes together in one big car crash of a newsfeed.
Facebook’s and Twitter’s newsfeeds work because they are designed around the content. On Facebook, large images and videos jump out invitingly, and headlines are clear. Tweets are short, pithy and enhanced by images and videos.
I think the underlying problem is that LinkedIn has no clear idea what its newsfeed is for. If it could settle on a purpose, or at least - as a start - two or three content types, it would be able to create a design to suit the content.
Which leads me to point 2…
2) Decide on the format for conversations
Over time, the leading social networks have settled on a conversational format that works for them. On Facebook how it works is essentially: I post a status update about something I’ve done, or am doing, or have seen, or have read - usually in the form of an image or video or a link - and you “like” it or post a quick comment to show you care.
On Twitter it’s pretty much the same, except commenting and liking is less frequent and 90% of stuff is never seen or simply ignored (hmm, that’s a blog post for another day…)
On Quora people post questions, people answer the questions, and people vote the answers up or down.
On forums people start discussion threads and others respond with comments.
Each of these formats has its own conversational rules of engagement, etiquette and established information design.
LinkedIn has none of these things. Instead, it seems to have settled for creating a poor imitation of Facebook’s and Twitter’s newsfeeds and completely missed the opportunity to design appropriately for professional conversations.
Which leads us nicely to point 3...
3) Sort out groups
This one is close to my heart. Back in 2008 I started the DigitalFWD LinkedIn group (originally called Web Managers Group). It has grown to over 8,000 members, which on any well designed professional forum would easily be enough to ensure a good level of daily conversation.
Unfortunately, LinkedIn has never made groups work. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve been a member of over 100 LinkedIn groups and I’ve yet to see one that achieves anything like the quality of experience or conversation you would expect from an online forum of comparable size.
There are many reasons for this, and not all of them are LinkedIn’s fault (group managers like me must also take some responsibility). But it’s frustrating to see how the product updates to LinkedIn groups over the years have failed to address the obvious issues, and have actually made things worse.
On the desktop site, groups are buried in the navigation under “Interests”. On mobile, groups are not part of the main LinkedIn app; there is a separate groups app which probably not many people are even aware of. Don’t worry - you’re really not missing much.
On both desktop and mobile app, the homepage for groups is - guess what - another jumbled newsfeed! The format seems designed to encourage lazy, spammy posting, and to deter any type of intelligent conversation.
How do people find a new group to join? Click “Discover” and you are presented with a fairly random list of groups the algorithm thinks you might like to join. Wot no search? No topic categories? No ratings system?
Within individual groups, there’s no structure or easy way to see older conversation threads.
Posts in groups tend not to show up in most users’ general LinkedIn browsing experience. You need to visit a group (several clicks on desktop or an entirely separate mobile app) to see what’s happening, and most people simply can’t be bothered.
LinkedIn, in my view, has little respect for groups or group owners. I have offered constructive feedback direct to LinkedIn on several occasions and never had a response.
If done right, groups could be huge for LinkedIn. They could be community hubs. Look at what Meetup.com has done without the vast asset of LinkedIn’s user base.
With the right design, groups could be hives of knowledge and expertise, like the best forums.
There are various ways LinkedIn could redesign groups to encourage interaction and discussion. If they don’t want to go down the well trodden path of online forums, perhaps they should look at Slack for inspiration.
4) Deliver on their product strategy to "create value for members by connecting them to opportunity"
They’ve said it, now they need to do it.
We all love genuine opportunities. This doesn’t mean spam messages from tedious recruiters pushing irrelevant jobs.
LinkedIn’s jobs page takes the opposite approach to the homepage newsfeed. It tries to be “less is more”. But unfortunately ends up as “less is less”. All it displays is job title, company logo and location.
Frankly it’s a terrible jobs listing page. As a minimum I would expect a jobs listing to show me: job title, company, summary of the role, industry/sector, salary and location. But, more than that, since this is one of the world’s top social platforms and I’ve been handing it my data for about 12 years, I would also expect to see things like: who do I know who works for the company? How well does the role match my skills and experience? What do my contacts think of the company? And I should be able to give one-click feedback on the jobs, so that LinkedIn might refine relevance.
Of course there are really two LinkedIns when it comes to finding jobs and opportunities. There’s the LinkedIn that’s pretty social, where people shout out to their networks about jobs: “Hey guys, we’re hiring! It’s a really cool job for someone who likes chickens!” This takes place on the main newsfeed, jumbled in among all the other crap. And then there’s the revenue generating LinkedIn, where companies pay to push their job ads out to the market in a very non-social way. LinkedIn needs to think about how to combine the best of both.
LinkedIn also doesn’t offer much when it comes to telling you what it’s like to work for a company. Digital consultant Amer Hussain commented to me: “I really like the company reviews part of Glassdoor. it would be great for either an API to bridge this or a similar feature on a company’s profile page which gives a voice to the workforce, both present and past.”
Amer raised another good point about the practicalities of looking for work on LinkedIn: “When I'm looking for work, I’d rather not publicly announce it, but discreetly select a option which allows recruiters to find me quicker.”
Then there’s the whole world of freelance work, which LinkedIn has overlooked. “Freelance” is not even a search option. Richard Wand, head of user experience at marketing agency Hugo & Cat, commented: “I use LinkedIn to build a good network of talented freelance UXers that I can tap up when the right opportunity comes up. But LinkedIn is missing a trick by not providing tools to see their availability for work, or match their skills to a particular role - something which platforms like YunoJuno are absolutely nailing.”
5) Fix the mobile experience
Yeah, this is kind of a biggie.
If you want to increase engagement with time-poor professionals, LinkedIn, you’d better up your mobile game.
All of the problems mentioned above become much worse on a small screen. The insanely cluttered newsfeed is unworkable, and LinkedIn is missing out on learning what mobile users want by not designing-in choices. If the mobile app offered, say, the choice of: a feed of updates from your contacts, a feed of industry news, a feed of trending posts, and a feed of company updates, at least they would have some data on which content users find most valuable and engaging.
Instead, precious mobile navigation real estate is wasted on: “Me” - a feed that mainly consists of people endorsing me for skills and liking my updates, and is therefore a) fairly sparse, b) fairly worthless.
And as for making the most of the unique capabilities of mobile devices? Nada. Wouldn’t a location based meetup function be a godsend for face-to-face networking?
6) Use all that data to give us some insight
I have about 1800 LinkedIn connections. It would be quite useful to be able to search and organise them intelligently. How many PPC specialists do I know? How many heads of digital have recently moved into new roles and might be looking for some assistance? LinkedIn, I know you know these things, please share your wisdom with me!
7) Give us some properly good content
Apart from helping us to find jobs and manage our networks - both of which LinkedIn is, as I’ve said, pretty poor at - the primary draw for LinkedIn users is content.
While your Facebook newsfeed has exploded to life with video content over the past couple of years, LinkedIn doesn’t seem to have caught the video bug yet. You can’t upload videos, and although you can embed videos from YouTube or Vimeo, few people seem to be inclined to do so. Motivational quotes still seem to be more popular.
Now both Twitter and Facebook offer live video streaming. There’s huge engagement potential in a B2B context for this. LinkedIn needs to get on board.
Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn does not partner with publishers. Why not? LinkedIn’s content ecosystem is crying out for an injection of quality B2B journalism. Imagine if LinkedIn was the best place to get the best content in your field of interest? Startups like Flipboard and Zite (which Flipboard acquired) have shown how effective curated publishing can be.
Another great source of B2B content should be presentations. LinkedIn bought SlideShare for $119m in 2012, and they’ve done little to integrate this content stream into the core user experience, beyond adding presentations to user profiles.
LinkedIn should be teeming with great video talks, live streamed discussions, webinars, and informative presentations, rated by my network, all thrust into my highly distractible face every time I access the website or the app.
8) Get a slice of the event market
LinkedIn missed a trick by not building or acquiring an event ticketing platform. Eventbrite, founded four years after LinkedIn (in 2006), is the clear market leader, now valued at over $1bn.
As a sometime event organiser, I can say Eventbrite lacks what LinkedIn has: a huge audience of professionals to promote events to. And as a punter interested in attending events, I never check EventBrite to see “what’s on”, whereas LinkedIn would be the perfect place to show me upcoming professional events and see who in my network is attending.
9) Seize the huge opportunity!
Like many people, I’m pretty into my work and professional field. Given some spare time, I like to keep up with work-related news, developments and thinking. I like to attend events and converse with people in the sector. I’m all for broadening my professional knowledge.
Facebook is where I kill time and distract myself from work. Twitter is where I plug into what’s happening in the world and get a dose of humour and whimsy. LinkedIn should be the place I go to deepen my understanding, keep up to date with industry developments, build better relationships and find new opportunities.
LinkedIn is “the world’s largest professional network”. I think it’s time it took greater responsibility and started acting like it deserves that position.
What do you think LinkedIn should do?
Adam Cranfield is a digital consultant and director at DigitalFWD.