I’m adding LinkedIn to my “50 Content Companies that Matter” list, although it’s more for their concept and mindshare than their execution to-date.
Social Networking is a concept that has been active in the consumer space for a while (Facebook, MySpace and others), but has barely taken hold in the professional markets. At the same time, there is tremendous interest in this concept in a number of industries. Many knowledge management projects of the past five-to-ten years were designed with the goal of leveraging relationships for business development, particularly in the investment banking and professional services industries. Unfortunately, these technologies were not scalable and often required lots of manual data updating, never fulfilling their promise.
Reid Hoffman and the team at LinkedIn took a different approach. Rather than a centralized institutional social networking application, they developed a personal version. Enter your contacts and invite them to join your network. Over time, you’ll find that many of your peers have done the same and your network will extend to thousands of people.
The good news is that LinkedIn has attracted more than 4 million users to date. When I log in, LinkedIn tells me that my network consists of more than 619,000 of these users. But, in b2b social networking, I know that not to be the case. I can ask one of my network contacts to introduce me to one of theirs (2 degrees of separation). But, that’s as far as the network extends in the business world. Relationships that are three degrees or more may be useful in drinking games (“6 degrees of Kevin Bacon”), but few people will open up their valuable business network to a stranger, even one referred by someone in their own network.
That's one of the reasons why LinkedIn has yet to nail their business model. While almost everyone I know is a member, few have integrated it into their regular processes and fewer still use the actual request process to get networked. Instead, usage is typically like that which a recruiter colleague described. He uses LinkedIn to search for potential candidates. Using the result set, rather than reaching out to his contacts for introductions online, he just works the phone as he has always done. For him, LinkedIn is a useful sourcing database - a reference database - but it is not a social networking application. I know many others in sales who use it in a similar manner.
So, if I’m not confident in the model, why have I added LinkedIn to the 50 Content Companies that Matter? For one, it’s raised the awareness of the concept of social networking in the professional markets. Second, it’s helping to change the model of database publishing. Rather than a content company identifying relationships from its own content, LinkedIn has built a model in which the users are the editors and the community builds the content. Whether or not LinkedIn ultimately succeeds as a standalone business (and I think it likely to be acquired at some point), it is helping to change the way that content is created and delivered. And for that, it’s clearly one of the 50 Content Companies that Matter.