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The problem with LinkedIn

By classical metrics like revenue and profit, LinkedIn is the most successful social network other than Facebook.  Unlike Facebook, however, it uses a seemingly more sustainable freemium business model, which sells your profile to recruiters via premium account subscriptions.  No autoplay video ads to see here.

But have you tried to actually use LinkedIn’s apps? They’re embarrassing failures of both concept and execution. AFAIK, their Android app doesn’t use native code and is outdone by 3rd-party clients like DroidIn. Their iOS Contacts app can’t add contacts, naturally. And their Web interface makes basic tasks, like changing your default email address, into labyrinthine ordeals (but it is good at showing you whom viewers also viewed and people I may know – thanks for the lesson in creepiness, and more on this below). For a company with $100s of millions in revenue, why can’t LinkedIn create either a fundamentally useful mobile experience or a Web experience that isn’t just a way to show off how it tracks profile searches?

Inertia, I think. When a category leader becomes entrenched against seemingly any competitor, it (and the writers who chronicle it) began to question the importance of quality or user experience. You can see this in mantras about how it “didn’t matter” that BlackBerry made ancient legacy devices that were out of touch with consumer trends because every serious CIO wouldn’t give up his Torch, or how it didn’t matter that the iPhone made hardware keyboards obsolete since real business users wouldn’t tolerate a software-only keyboard, even it it did have impeccable quality.

Well, let me say: experience and quality always matter. If a device or service is shittily designed, it will suffer, eventually. No one notices this, even after the fact, because it often takes so long for the bottom line to take a hit that observers have already moved on. For example, a forward-looking Cassandra might have thought that the debut of the iPhone 3G in the summer of 2008 would have spelled immediate doom for BlackBerry, which accordingly should have nosedived any day thereafter. It actually hit an all-time high during that summer, and sales increased every single quarter until early 2011. It weathered the first four iPhones, the first two iPads, and its own disastrous release of the PlayBook! As Paul Graham says: revenue is a trailing indicator. It can continue rising even as sickness sets in and waits for the kill.

To compound issues for LinkedIn, its dated design (which in its mobile agnosticism still looks like something built for Win XP in ~2005) may seem just fine to its users, 80% of whom are 30+ and who came of age before mobile-first app design, when niceties like iOS 7 and Android Holo were just twinkles in Silicon Valley engineers’ eyes. It also has a level of creepiness that I think should make even Facebook blush. I won’t try to innovate in pointing out the oddities of both People You May Know and People Also Viewed: there are two excellent articles about those subjects here and here. But I have noticed that LinkedIn does indeed have a knack for knowing that I “may know” an ex-boyfriend in another country who was not even in the contacts directory of my LinkedIn-linked email address. And, yep, it looks like the “People Also Viewed” ribbon for most profiles is populated by LinkedIn’s younger females members.

I’ve mercilessly made fun of Facebook in the past, but LinkedIn may have been the better target all along. It feels like a mid-2000s era dating service (the profile views tracker is particularly indebted to those forerunners) brought up to respectability by a critical mass of older professionals. It also has no real competitors at this point, at least in terms of sheer users. But  for services that rely on critical mass and assume that quality doesn’t matter, problems arise when even one successful well-designed product comes out and infringes upon their space. To wit:

-Facebook: the release of Instagram in 2010 revealed how relatively hard it was to share photos via FB, as well as how noisy and filter-biased FB was. Snapchat similarly exploited disillusionment with FB’s huge data mine, which until then had been seen as one of its most critical strong-suits. Aaron Levie was right to say that the moats that protect a company in one era become threats in the next.

-LinkedIn: Pulse News was a recent LI acquisition, which occurred with minimal noise and received bored looks from the tech press. Why would LinkedIn care about news reading? Well, because news readers are becoming venues for creating and customizing content. The best example here is Flipboard and its custom magazines. What if someday Flipboard let you create your own resume in a visually rich, interlinked way? LinkedIn would immediately be in trouble – Flipboard would be to software what BYOD has become to hardware.

Acquisitions and copycatting can buy time, but it can’t protect a company against all possible comers. Some of them will succeed in siphoning off a key service into another app/location, like Instagram did with Facebook vis-a-vis photo sharing.

For these reasons, you can never feel that your service is “too good” or that its goodness doesn’t matter. Nothing can be too good – the sweating over quality and details is why Apple remains uniquely advantaged against its competitors, and it’s why Google continues to have little competition in search or maps in particular. I’m kinda scared to think about what a “too good” LinkedIn would look like (would it identify a secret crush as someone I may know? would my brother or alternate email profile show in the “also viewed” ribbon?), but LinkedIn itself had better start thinking about how to get there.

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