What LinkedIn needs to do to move ahead in mobile

LinkedIn is enjoying an eventful year, surpassing 100 million users and basking in the glow of a successful IPO. But the company’s mobile site and applications have failed to drive much traffic, according to data released by Compete last week: The analytics company found that a mere 9 percent of LinkedIn members used their mobile devices to engage with the service. That’s far fewer than the number of Twitter users (43 percent) or Facebook members (34 percent) who accessed their social networks via mobile, according to Compete.

Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising given LinkedIn’s slow response to the era of the superphone: While the company released an iPhone app in August 2008, it didn’t release a downloadable app for BlackBerry until last year, and its Android app is only seven months old. (Facebook, by comparison, offered a native app for BlackBerry in 2007 and launched its first Android app in 2009.) But mobile is a fast-moving world where our appetite for data has nearly doubled in the last year alone. The company has long been the subject of speculation regarding a takeover at the hands of Google, among others, or a merger with RIM. But LinkedIn doesn’t need to depend on established mobile companies to make a few key moves that will pay big dividends in the coming months and years:

  1. Integration with Skype. Embracing Skype (as has been rumored) would give LinkedIn members the power to communicate with each other via VoIP and instant messaging as well, which would be very compelling to many of its business users. And the tie-up would also pave the way for videoconferencing over smartphones and tablets, which also would be attractive to LinkedIn’s professional customer base.
  2. Partnerships with handset manufacturers and carriers. Embedding LinkedIn’s mobile apps on handsets would go a long way toward making users aware of those offerings, and it could even open the door for a “LinkedIn phone” targeted at executives, just as INQ’s line of Facebook-focused phones is aimed at consumers. Research In Motion is a good fit here, of course, but Microsoft might be even more appealing for two reasons: Redmond recently acquired Skype, of course, and the LinkedIn brand could appeal to the executives who were once Microsoft’s staple in mobile. Just as importantly, distribution deals would help LinkedIn leverage its precious contact information by enabling users to sync phones with their accounts, just as Android does with Facebook contacts.
  3. A store for business apps. Amazon is the most noteworthy of a small army of companies that have launched consumer-focused app stores (particularly targeting Android users), but there’s been little action in the promising world of third-party distribution of enterprise and productivity apps. (RIM’s App World serves that market, of course, but its core market of BlackBerry OS users continues to lose ground.) Selling apps is far from LinkedIn’s core competence, to be sure, and would require substantial investment to build from the ground up. But LinkedIn could partner with a player like Appia, which essentially offers white-label app stores for carriers and other mobile players. The move would provide an entirely new revenue stream and give mobile users one more reason to engage with the social network.
  4. Mobile advertising. LinkedIn’s network compiles an enormous amount of data that is extremely valuable for marketing and corporate intelligence, as Business to Community noted last month. That information is even more valuable when you add mobile to the mix, potentially providing insights into where users are and how they interact with LinkedIn on the go. As mobile usage increases, LinkedIn’s mobile site and applications will become valuable inventory on which to place marketing messages. The combination of targeted mobile ads and LinkedIn’s highly prized user base would prove lucrative.

LinkedIn has done well so far without aggressively moving into mobile, but its users will increasingly demand more from the service as our data consumption continues to surge. If it is to continue its impressive momentum in an increasingly mobile world, it must find more effective ways of engaging its users through the devices they carry every day.

Question of the week

How else can LinkedIn leverage mobile?