Can BranchOut “Gamify” Career Networking on Facebook?

While companies like Zynga, CrowdStar and Playdom are building entertainment franchises off apps, Facebook so far hasn’t been much of a platform for business. But now, BranchOut, which launched its Facebook app last summer, is attempting to apply tactics and techniques from social gaming to take on LinkedIn in professional career networking. Companies that want to build other business apps on the Facebook platform should pay attention.

Gamification” is one of this year’s buzzwords, and I pegged LinkedIn as a NewNet company to watch in 2011 (not to mention its potential IPO). But BranchOut — which has raised $6 million from Accel Partners, NorWest Venture Partners, Floodgate and a dozen angels — could potentially steal LinkedIn’s momentum. I talked to BranchOut CEO and founder Rick Marini, who told me that over the next week or so, BranchOut plans to roll out game-like but career-oriented quizzes — and, later, badges and leaderboards — and a Connections feature that, like social games, enables users to connect to other Facebook users outside their network of friends. Marini, who sold his personality quiz network, Tickle, to Monster.com in 2004, is employing viral gaming distribution tactics with BranchOut.

Building a Professional Network out of Facebook

BranchOut targets three constituencies: career networkers, recruiters and sales professionals looking for leads. The service has about 150,000 users and is just starting to talk to recruiters and HR professionals. It has 3 million jobs listings — powered by Indeed.com — and 15,000 internships. Today, anyone can place a job listing for free, though BranchOut will eventually charge for that, as well as for advanced search features for recruiting.

BranchOut soaks in and displays two degrees of Facebook friends (i.e., friends and their friends) and any company information they’ve posted. Users can opt to import their public LinkedIn profile info via LinkedIn’s API to create a resume. They can sort connections by friend or by company, and make endorsements. (An internship contest is based on collecting endorsements.)

Marini figures he can leverage Facebook’s nearly 600 million users with their existing friends networks to gain ground against LinkedIn’s 85 million users. He believes that a college or just-graduated audience will choose to add a professional filter to their Facebook network, rather than build a new one from scratch at LinkedIn.

But LinkedIn is testing out a “Career Explorer” with gaming elements for college students. And there are plenty of other social media competitors, including at least 10 other Facebook jobs apps. The Gen Y-oriented Brazen Careerist site recently introduced a speed-networking service called Network Roulette that randomly matches participants for quick conversations on career needs and interests. More importantly, while recent grads are certainly seeking professional connections, they don’t necessarily have any meaningful ones. BranchOut will have to attract some experienced professionals with valuable business contacts, not just Facebook “super connectors.”

How It Might Work

It’s true that Monster.com eventually shut down Tickle, but Tickle was a start-from-scratch network with limited utility. Marini has learned from that. The following are the most promising aspects of BranchOut’s strategy:

  • Adding confidentiality to Facebook. This might be just the incentive to attract professionals. BranchOut can exploit the scare stories about Facebook privacy leaks and employers firing people for Facebook comments by establishing and promoting heavily its own private messaging and non-friend Connections capabilities.
  • Testing viral distribution. Once Facebook changed its update policies for games, companies had to use alternative tactics to attract new users. BranchOut is testing which Facebook channels work best — endorsement requests, wall posts, messages, etc.
  • Adding professional info to the social graph. Facebook’s new profile encourages that already, and BranchOut’s can use it, blend it with LinkedIn info, and pattern-match across companies and job descriptions. If it isn’t doing so already, it should add schools and geography data.

Question of the week

How can companies build professional networks out of Facebook?