LinkedIn’s Product Announcement: Reaction and Analysis

Jeff Weiner and the LinkedIn team announced a suite of sweeping product changes, showcasing a reinvigorated product team led by Jeff. The scale and scope of the changes are the most exciting announcement to their core products (Talent Solutions) in years. Unfortunately, most news has focused on the announcements themselves, not what they might mean for normal users.

Overall, the main message is that LinkedIn appears to have finally decided that ‘Relationships Matter,’ not just Connections.

For me and most users, this should be a welcome departure from their old ways of merely trying to increase network size and drive ‘engagement’ (clicks).

In hopes of spurring a broader discussion of where the largest professional network is headed, below I’ll outline what this means for normal LinkedIn users and, in particular, recruiters.

Disclaimer: I briefly worked at LinkedIn (as a Corporate Development intern) and love the people there. Everything that Jeff Weiner does as a leader is inspirational — anyone lucky enough to work with him should feel fortunate. I feel similarly positive about Dan Shapero and all of the product folks there.

Summary: a step in the right direction

Eduardo Vivas, LinkedIn’s Head of Talent Products, kicked off his speech with: “Data alone is not the solution.”

That admission was one core message in a broader trend in their products: LinkedIn will now rely much more on its members to make their feed, product and overall experience relevant and valuable. They have a lot of ground to make up in this domain — e.g. how many of you have been interested in a “Job You May Be Interested In”?

Bringing their products into the 21st century from a design and function perspective should be welcomed by everyone. On top of that, they’ve made strides to make their product more in-line with how people actually behave (e.g. search) instead of how LinkedIn wished they behave. Users, UX and product people, rejoice.

With that, let’s move on to the top 3 highlights and top 3 concerns about the announcements.

Highlight 1: LinkedIn finally decides that ‘relationships matter’.

Jeff Weiner and Dan Shapero both hit on this. They finally admitted (to applause) that their messaging may have been, to put it politely, overzealous, and that they may have sent users unnecessary messages.

Not just “Connections” anymore — we hope

They went one step further in realizing that the core product doesn’t yet provide enough high quality ways for you to ‘nurture’ your relationships. LinkedIn’s challenge will be convincing users that they have in fact changed their ways.

Nurturing your network is important, as I’ve discussed before. Whether you can sincerely nurture over 1000 Connections remains to be seen, but LinkedIn’s approach is sure to reveal that.

Highlight 2: LinkedIn’s products meet 21st century design principles

Cleaner Design: finally

LinkedIn revealed a new, streamlined design and ‘appification’ of the product with their announcements. Jeff himself made polite fun of the clunky interface (esp. in messaging) that has plagued LinkedIn interactions for years.

The messenger will finally be on par with those of Facebook and other leading tech companies (hooray!). Mobile search should finally also work, and the ‘people intention’ (understand who you want to look for, or who you’re likely to be looking for) will be a blessing for those quickly searching people before meetings. Equally overdue and welcome is that your feed surfaces comments from your connections at the top, instead of just telling you that they commented and having you dig through 100s of comments on popular articles.

In addition, the Calendar integration will save lots of searches and give LinkedIn access to useful Calendar data. If people adopt LinkedIn into their calendar as a default, this will revolutionize the data they have about people and make their data science even stronger than it is now.

Highlight 3: Suggesting it’s not just about you

LinkedIn introduced a bunch of new products and features to help your network.

For example, your feed will prompt you on important events in your Connections. This allows you to opportunistically engage with folks when you need to.

They are also rebooting their referral products.

LinkedIn Referrals: This time it’s personal

Eduardo Vivas’ announcement led to huge applause, and their current product looks to be much better than their previous effort. Their previous referral product launched back in 2012 and was something of a damp squib. Referrals has always been a highly requested product feature; unfortunately, the way LinkedIn encourages engagement and performs data science (see my concern #3 below) likely means that most people won’t organically refer.

They’ve apparently been piloting the product internally. Unfortunately, LinkedIn refuses to give hard numbers. A 70% increase in applications inside LinkedIn that was mentioned in the discussion means very little without a base (i.e. 70% of what, precisely?).

Nevertheless, referrals is an encouraging step in the right direction for LinkedIn.

Concern 1: LinkedIn still isn’t built for ‘relationships’

LinkedIn was built for monotonically increasing engagement and, most importantly, ‘Connections.’ I previously wrote on the difference between meaningful relationships and Connections.

But LinkedIn still treats your ‘Connections’ as if they’re based on ‘real’ relationships. Everyone seems to know this isn’t true except LinkedIn.

On top of that, you still ‘Connect’ with everyone in a public forum. All of your congratulations, most of your comments, and likes remain public. Touting that people at the conference have 1,974 Connections, when people can (at maximum) keep close tabs on 100–200 (see Dunbar’s Law) shows the fundamental disconnect with LinkedIn’s mission and our reality.

Can you build meaningful relationships with 2,000 people? Contact me if you can, please.

LinkedIn would like everyone to be publicly commenting on how successful everyone else is, and how great a job everyone else is doing. This is great for high-profile folks, but does not reflect how most people’s careers progress. They have bumps. Most career conversations that matter happen behind closed doors. If you’re announcing you’re looking for a job in public, you are unusually brave or desperate.

In particular, Jeff’s example of finding jobs for people laid off in public may seem magnanimous from the CEO’s office, but I suspect that it may not be as favorably by the employees whose careers were at stake and subsequently laid off.

Concern 2: LinkedIn’s reliance on broad data may hinder its success

LinkedIn has, without a doubt, the most comprehensive professional dataset in the world. However, Eduardo mentioned up-front that it isn’t perfect, and falls far short of solving all of the problems LinkedIn hopes to solve.

While referrals are an exciting step in the direction, I suspect that the matching they do at scale will hurt their referral products and their brand. An example: my friend, who has spent over 10 years managing investment portfolios in Asia, recently posted a picture on Facebook with a “LinkedIn Job he may be interested in.” The job? Undergraduate Investment Banking Intern.

It’s goofs like these — though they may be rare — that will very quickly make LinkedIn’s product lose credibility with the target audience. The relevance problem extends deep into LinkedIn’s core data and engine.

Unless their core data and engine have meaningfully changed, this data problem seems to be rebranded instead of comprehensively thought-through from the ground-up.

I’m looking for an architect. Do you know any? Oh, sorry I meant Software Architect

Even Dan Shapero’s use of ‘architect’ seemed contrived. Architects, both structural and software, come in so many different flavors and LinkedIn’s skills taxonomy doesn’t have remotely the sophistication to grasp the subtle nuances between the different roles.

This isn’t LinkedIn’s fault. However the majority of the context around who you work with isn’t captured in the platform. LinkedIn can ‘kind of’ build org charts, but ‘kind of’ won’t cut it on the types of data required here.

LinkedIn recognizes that people are the key to solving this; unfortunately, poor relevance in suggestions won’t help LinkedIn users find the right Connections. One can only hope their Calendar integration will help in this domain.

Concern 3: LinkedIn’s previous strategies mean that it must regain users’ trust

We’ve all seen posts (and I mentioned above) how people feel about LinkedIn’s ‘Jobs you may be interested in’ or random ‘Connection requests’ we all get. InMail’s are often equally loathed and ignored.

Their recruiter product will make it easier to surface people without complicated queries. Recruiters everywhere celebrated. While making people easier to target should at first be welcome, many users realized that it means more InMails and more spam, causing reactions similar to the one below:

2–3x open rate?
On the face of it, 2–3x improvements on InMail opens should be celebrated. It means the efforts to target are more effective. Unfortunately, these improvements also highlight the work ahead. Though LinkedIn doesn’t release numbers, 2–3x increase is not increasing 33% open rates to 100%, that’s for sure.

When all’s said and done, reducing recruiter spam is a noble intention. However, LinkedIn’s tension between needing you to engage as their core model and trying to ‘help you’ in your career by separating signal from the noise are at odds.

Final Thoughts: Positive Reactions and Prospects for LinkedIn

Love them or hate them, LinkedIn is the most important player in professional networking. That means, that they have the opportunity to help hundreds of millions find new opportunities and better their career.

The realization at the CEO level that it’s not about clicks, but about genuine relationships feels like a step in the right direction. We at Shortlist feel similarly, and I’ve previously written that personal relationships are important. Similarly, the referral product and involving the human touch more in their product (instead of just chasing engagement) is a positive development.

From my experience and from history, LinkedIn has had and still has incredibly talented folks creating important products. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Ryan Borker

COO and Head of Product, Shortlist

October, 2015

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