Everywhere you look, a social platform of some kind is either looking to become a publisher or has already done so, whether it’s by hiring writers and editors, as Medium has, or by encouraging media companies to allow their content to live on its platform, as both Snapchat and Facebook do. While other platforms get most of the publicity, however, there is one player on the field that seems to be consistently underestimated as a competitor, and that’s LinkedIn.
Maybe it’s because the site is somewhat ugly to look at and often difficult to use, or because the bulk of the activity that tends to occur there is purely utilitarian — people looking for jobs, people reviewing candidates for jobs, professional networking and so on — but the site’s appeal and potential power as a publishing platform is often overlooked.
That might be a mistake: As Ad Age magazine noted earlier this week, LinkedIn has been hiring journalists from places like Fortune (where executive editor Dan Roth used to work before he joined the company) and the Wall Street Journal to create, edit and manage content. Those who just joined include former Fortune reporter Caroline Fairchild, former WSJ social-media editor Maya Pope-Chappell, and Indian journalist Ramya Venugopal.
From platform to publisher
This marks another step in the site’s evolution from just a static place where people put their curriculum vitae to a content destination. The first step was the launch of LinkedIn Today several years ago, a daily news offering much like the email newsletter round-ups that many traditional media entities put out. Then LinkedIn bought the news-recommendation service Pulse so it could make better recommendations for users.
After that came the LinkedIn Influencer program in 2013, which attracted celebrities like Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson by offering them a platform to express themselves. Medium has taken much the same approach, and recently convinced the White House to post both President Obama’s budget and his State of the Union address there. And like Medium, LinkedIn eventually opened its platform to everyone.
As the Ad Age piece points out, these kinds of efforts make LinkedIn look a lot more like a competitor for existing media companies than a partner — and a competitor that is doing better at the business that those media entities used to think they owned, which is advertising: last year, LinkedIn sold almost half a billion dollars in ads, which is more than all but the top tier of media companies.
Content is a sideline
Much like Facebook, what LinkedIn offers to publishers and to individual writers — and to brands who advertise on the platform as well — is reach: in Facebook’s case, it’s the ability to target and reach huge numbers of users who are in the right demographic. In LinkedIn’s case, it’s the ability to reach large numbers of readers or users who are interested in professional topics, business-related issues, etc. It’s like a collection of trade magazines, where the content is curated by people who work in those fields.
I spoke to a woman recently who was uncomfortable about using Facebook and Twitter, and said that LinkedIn was the social network or platform where she spent the most time, and got the most value. For her, the fact that the site was boring and professional — which some users see as a negative — was actually a good thing, because she could catch up on links or content that were of value to her a lot faster.
At a time when business publications like Forbes are becoming like platforms in an attempt to monetize their audience, and in some cases straying a lot closer to the grey areas of sponsored content and native advertising than many would like, it seems natural that platforms like LinkedIn would try to become more like business publications. And the thing that makes them a fearsome competitor is that content is a sideline business for them — even if it doesn’t work, they still have a pretty good business they can fall back on. Their traditional media competitors, however, are fighting for their lives.