Like any good corporate head-hunter, LinkedIn has a reputation for never letting go of its quarry. The professional social network that Forbes dubbed “The Anti-Facebook” is notorious for its aggressive approach to “engaging” users. So much so that Comedy Central’s Daily Show host John Oliver recently tried to unsubscribe live on air, castigating the site by saying: “You seem to have monetised irritating people.”
For many of the members who have joined up and accept contacts on the site but aren’t really sure what its uses are, this may sound familiar. And with this week’s announcement that it’s lowering its age limit to 13 in the UK, LinkedIn’s desire for expansion seems increasingly impatient and, to some, perhaps even misplaced. What sort of precocious 13-year-olds want to try and hobnob with top-level recruiters? How can the website ever hope to dislodge Facebook and Twitter? Why, in short, are they even bothering?
From the site’s point of view, the lower age limit was never the real target – it was just a footnote to the launch of University Pages, a new section that offers profiles for educational institutes. Imagine a digital prospectus where potential students can not only see how universities specialise in various sectors, but also snoop on notable alumni and dream about all the completely meritocratic leg-ups they might get in the future. It’s the sort of careers service website that the Government could never dare launch, and one that perfectly piggy-backs the networking functionality of the site.
Watching the adverts for University Pages, it’s clear that LinkedIn isn’t trying to “compete” with Facebook. The video’s tone is eerily similar to government-funded PSAs trying to jolly young people into being responsible adults. LinkedIn, we’re assured is “not just for old people with heavy briefcases, it’s for you.”
The “you” in question here is not the teenager who wants to chat with friends or click through photos of last night to find out what they did, but the teenager who knows that they will have to a get a job, and that they need every advantage they can get. LinkedIn’s insight here is recognising that these two are often the same person. No-one wants their Facebook page doing double-time as a face for both friends and for work. LinkedIn is attempting to offer another option, a comfortable division of your professional life and private life.
Although it has less than a quarter of Facebook’s members (238 million to Facebook’s 1.11bn), user sign-up for LinkedIn is currently increasing 37 per cent year on year, a figure that is more than matched by investor confidence. After an initial public offering in 2011 at a share price of $45 (£29), LinkedIn has consistently outperformed the market’s expectations, and in the last year share prices have more than doubled – currently hovering at around $237 (£152).
Much of this success is credited to Jeff Weiner, previously an executive at Yahoo who became interim president of the site in 2008 and CEO in 2009. Before Weiner joined, growth for the site had been slow. After launching quietly in 2003 the site had attracted one million sign-ups by the next year but the services it offered with minimal –just a bio page, a contact list and the ability to add colleagues. Although the site had attracted 20 million users by 2008, this was a slow growth rate compared to its rivals. Between 2006 and 2008, Facebook managed to add more than 130 million users.
Under Weiner’s leadership LinkedIn has dramatically repositioned itself from a service to a platform. University Pages – and the lower age limit – are just a single example in a larger transformation common to successful social networks. Once these sites have scooped up their most valuable resource – a pile of active users with real identities – a logical way to expand their business is to offer these individuals more services.
Facebook’s tactic was to launch the imaginatively-titled Platform in 2007, offering software developers the chance to develop apps and services within the social network. In return, Facebook would benefit by absorbing the web traffic of potential competitors and strengthening their position as a hub for various activities online. Platform was only a mixed success but LinkedIn’s future looks brighter.
Alongside University Pages, the site has launched services such as LinkedIn Today, an RSS-like news aggregator where users sign up to topics relevant to their work and interests, and the Influencers programme, a place where “the smartest people driving the professional conversation” write original content for the site. The sign-up list for the latter shows the scope of LinkedIn’s ambition (Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Shinzo Abe are all on board) as well as the site’s reach (Bill Gates’ first post received more than 1 million views in under 48 hours).
Weiner’s changes though are still underwritten by a professional focus; in terms of revenue the site’s bread and butter is still labelled “Talent Solutions”. These services, which represented 38 per cent of revenue in Q1 2010 and have risen to 56 per cent in Q2 2013, offer recruiters a number of different tools but are especially good at “passive recruitment” – using the site’s massive database to find jobs for individuals who aren’t actively looking.
This is typical of the site’s formula for success: unlike Facebook it doesn’t need users to visit it all the time to generate revenue. And with the new lower age limit set to attract more users to the site, LinkedIn is the perfect embodiment of its service: the more people in your network, the more powerful you are.
The LinkedIn generation: How teenagers will use service
‘Let me in. I’ve got the mind to do business’
Danni Cotterill, 15, from Bournemouth
I recently heard that LinkedIn is lowering the age limit to 13, and I’ll definitely sign up. I think it’s great because it’s beneficial for my future career ideas, and it’ll give me a head start in finding jobs. I took part in Tenner, the enterprise competition run by Young Enterprise, and intend to carry on the company I set up with my friend Georgia. LinkedIn will help us get advice from people in business on our ideas.
Opening up LinkedIn gives younger teenagers the opportunity to network with people in business and get feedback. Thirteen year olds have grown up with technology and their minds are like a sponge – they can take in a lot of information and they are quite professionally minded.
Taking part in Tenner has given me an understanding of how to work in a team and work to a deadline. I’ve got the mind of a business person now.
‘I already run a website. This is ideal for me’
Niall Sanderson, 15, from Carlisle
LinkedIn is a great place where lots of people who work in the same industry can connect. I run TalkRadioUK, it’s a website that provides radio, publishing and news to the public, produced and presented by the youth. We’d like to look for radio presenters who do sites like this, both professional and amateur.
We’ve reached 200,000 through our network. We do a network news show where we go out on stations worldwide, so LinkedIn is another idea where we can find other radio stations that perhaps, would like to use our services.
It’s a good place where we can put ideas up, where other people can contribute to them and we can see what other people’s ideas are, as well and find a mix where we can be in partnership with other people and use other people’s ideas.
All of the volunteers who operate on the social side keep all our social pages up to date, working on Twitter and Facebook, so through that, LinkedIn would be part of their responsibilities.
‘I can use it to make early career choices’
Christian Demaude, 14, from Lincolnshire
When LinkedIn announced that they would be lowering the minimum user age from 18 to 13, I was really excited because it means people my age will have a chance to get some early insight into the kind of jobs we want to do later.
I think the more information we get, and the earlier we get it, the easier it’ll be to make important decisions when we get older. We’ll be able to compare jobs, and it’ll help us to decide which universities might be best for what we want to do. When I grow older, I’m stuck between wanting to be an actor, an author or a psychology professor. So, maybe LinkedIn could help me to learn more about these jobs, about how they work, what I’d need to study and so on.
I might even get advice from people who actually have these jobs. I’m looking forward to setting up an account.