Business networking Web site LinkedIn is loosening its tie. Caught between a polished image as a nexus for professional contacts and the encroachment of Facebook and other networks, LinkedIn is taking a step toward informality. Starting Sept. 26, the site's 14 million users will be able to post photos of themselves.
These won't be just any photos, mind you. The company wants users to post serious-looking head shots of the kind that would accompany an executive biography. LinkedIn will "do everything we can to encourage it to remain professional," says spokeswoman Kay Luo, lest the site "degrade" to the level of a less business-like destination. She didn't name names, but it's clear LinkedIn wants to avoid the informality of places like News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace and even Facebook, the social network that's exploded in popularity and has become for some Web users an alternate to LinkedIn for keeping up with their professional contacts.
However limited, LinkedIn's move satisfies users' requests for a tool that can help jog the memory of a person's face. It could also make the site more attractive at a time when traditional media and Web companies covet a slice of its affluent audience (BusinessWeek, 1/29/07), and the advertising money spent to reach it. Featuring photos "obviously seems critical for a social network," says Barry Parr, a media analyst at JupiterResearch. "I don't remember what all my business contacts look like." The feature also puts starchy LinkedIn more in tune with the Web's expanding social nature, which is blurring the line between professional contacts and friends.
More openness may be coming. LinkedIn is working on ways to let outside software developers tap into the company's database to create applications that, for example, would let users keep tabs on their LinkedIn network from within an industry conference Web site, an Internet job board, or a business application like Salesforce.com (CRM). Making LinkedIn more accessible could be key to retaining value at a time when Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG) are reportedly eyeing investments in Facebook (BusinessWeek, 9/25/07) that could value the company at $10 billion or more. Facebook, which started as a hub for college kids who wanted to share beer photos and trade messages, has expanded to become, in Silicon Valley at least, a tool for keeping current (BusinessWeek, 8/6/07) with business contacts and planning conferences.
LinkedIn has hired a new chief financial officer, as well as vice-presidents of marketing, engineering, and operations, since June in preparation for a possible initial public offering in 2009, and may need to reassure investors that it remains relevant. "The challenge for LinkedIn is not only [that] Facebook [is] getting a whole lot more traffic, but in many cases people are using Facebook to pursue their business relationships," says Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst at Forrester Research (FORR), who has used Facebook to find interview subjects for his research. "That's what LinkedIn was developed for." Facebook now claims 43 million members and is adding 200,000 a day. LinkedIn is adding users at a pace of about 36,000 a day.
A Different Kind of Club
Including photos isn't a response to Facebook's popularity, says LinkedIn's Luo. "There is buzz about Facebook moving into the professional arena," she says. But LinkedIn helps people expand their professional networks in part because of the participation of many higher-level executives who are unlikely to join other networks. "To be a useful professional network, you have to have the people above you on the network," Luo says.
Indeed, LinkedIn has long debated whether to include photos, Luo says. As recently as an August interview, LinkedIn's co-founder and president Reid Hoffman said "photos and business don't go together," partly because images could unduly influence recruiters. To lessen that threat, LinkedIn is letting HR reps turn off the feature so they can screen candidates without regard to age, race, and appearance.
Hoffman says the company for the past year has been working on an application programming interface that would let outside developers use some of LinkedIn's data in their programs, and plans to release the technology by the spring of 2008. Hoffman gives the hypothetical example of a user of Salesforce.com's customer management software being able to view the LinkedIn profiles for their leads without having to navigate to the LinkedIn site.
Whatever LinkedIn's reason for adding photos, it will need to confront the bigger question of how big an appetite users and software developers will have for a proliferating number of social networks. Traditional media companies and Web outfits are trying to make social networking less of a destination and more of a feature. For instance, Yahoo! (YHOO), Viacom's (VIA) MTV.com, and eBay (EBAY) are all adding networking features (BusinessWeek, 9/24/07).
The trend will likely accelerate in 2008, forcing users and developers to make harder choices about where to spend time online. "Social networking is going to be a feature in lots of places," says Jupiter's Parr. People are going to start picking and choosing where they make their home." Amid the land rush, LinkedIn wants to make its high-earning devotees don't stray too far from the cosseted quarters it's built.