LinkedIn’s Prospects as a Social Media Platform

Last week, LinkedIn unveiled an upgraded version of its platform to developers. The professional social network has tried to establish itself as a platform with open APIs and services for third parties since 2009, not to simply to copy Facebook, but to confirm itself as the source for professional profiles, both for people and companies. With 100 million users and an upcoming IPO, what are its chances of LinkedIn sealing up this role?
The new platform release is based on Javascript APIs, which should make platform services faster and more developer-friendly. It supports OAuth 2.0 for better authentication integration with other sign-in services whether they’re home-grown or from Twitter, Facebook or Google. The new release offers a handful of plug-ins supporting sign-in, link-sharing and recommending, and ways to pull up snippets or full profiles of LinkedIn users and companies. Yes, it sounds a lot like Facebook Connect, though LinkedIn isn’t constructing a comments network. LinkedIn’s users aren’t  “Liking” or sharing as they do on Facebook — yet — but LinkedIn profiles contain valuable professional information (job title, history, expertise), and its data about company connections are much richer than Facebook’s.
What LinkedIn Is Trying to Do
Notice that I’m emphasizing off-site connectivity and information distribution, rather than platform features for apps that live within the LinkedIn site. That’s because LinkedIn is framing this release as such. The network does support apps, and LinkedIn doesn’t have many of those, since it works closely with select companies rather than encouraging open development. The current roster is a mix of professional productivity tools (SlideShare, Box.net, Tripit, SAP Community) and communications/news (Twitter, legal and real estate updates).
No, this release is about helping other sites harness LinkedIn’s users and their information in the hopes that off-site activity will drive users back to LinkedIn for increased engagement. If a news site, for example, used the API, a user could see a contextually related tweet from someone in his LinkedIn network; he might then be inspired to go to LinkedIn to dig deeper using LinkedIn Signal to filter other tweets by industry, geography, etc. Now, unlike Twitter, LinkedIn doesn’t have much content to syndicate. Nor do LinkedIn users create a constant flow of communications that drives traffic to other sites the way Facebook’s have. And LinkedIn expressly forbids API users to use profile information for marketing or advertising targeting.
LinkedIn’s Best Platform Angles
So how can LinkedIn convince other companies to use its API platform?
The network’s company profiles are more interesting for their connection info than for their content. Introduced last fall, LinkedIn company pages feature basic info that LinkedIn scrapes from the outside world like headlines, stock/finance data and maps. So third-party developers will be more interested in using the LinkedIn plug-ins and API to display person-to-company relationships. Sites about products, news and real estate, for example, could offer their mouse-over information bites useful for sales leads, job-seeking and network-building.
But LinkedIn’s best opportunity is to turn users’ professional profiles into “identities” — the equivalent of a user’s digital business card, but with trusted authentication behind it. So third-party sites will find LinkedIn’s authenticated sign-in plug-in the most appealing new feature. An individual that wants to maintain a professional persona as well as a personal one has likely set up two networks, one on Facebook for casual communications and photo-sharing and another on LinkedIn.
LinkedIn isn’t just starting today: It already has a large, relatively mature and wealthy audience. Connections on that network are already “colleagues” rather than “friends.”
To lock in and expand its role as professional profile of choice, LinkedIn should:

  • Evangelize the professional identity angle, starting with sign-ins at sites for business content, travel and gadgets; share user “ownership” and data (with the user’s permission) more liberally than Facebook or Apple.
  • Do the same with Salesforce.com and enterprise collaboration companies.
  • Build relationships with site development agencies to incent companies to beef up their LinkedIn pages; consider offering limited-time free ads or job listings/searches to sweeten the pot.

Question of the week

Can LinkedIn cut it as a social media platform?