Please add me?

Over a decade after LinkedIn started its growth to become the dominant professional network of choice, Jeff Weiner became introspective in the New Year:

How has LinkedIn helped you achieve your professional goals?

He asked, soliciting feedback from the hundreds of millions of folks on LinkedIn.

The feedback came streaming in: 700 people responded publicly to his request.

In this post we explore the results, both good and bad. And point to hints at how enterprising upstarts could exploit this feedback and attempt to dethrone LinkedIn.

An Overview of the data

720 individuals posted 760 comments. The comments ranged from the sincere and basic to the oddball.

These responses reinforce the obvious: LinkedIn is a fantastic tool, but not a perfect one. LinkedIn has succeeded in becoming most things to most people. However, some LinkedIn doubters highlighted some issues fundamental to the LinkedIn platform.

Statistically, most people were enthusiastic: about 70% of the posts were positive praise and stories. However, the remaining 30% provided mixed concerns and some negative stories.

Check out the highlights below, with accompanying quotes from LinkedIn users who responded to Jeff’s question.

The 800lb Gorilla in a great-looking suit

What LinkedIn is good at is no surprise:

1) Helping people network and find people they otherwise wouldn’t have

LinkedIn is the world’s professional directory of record. “Bridging the gap” by finding mutual connections remains LinkedIn’s most powerful quality. Need a new freelance client? A connection will doubtless know someone. Need to reach a sales prospect? Same story.

It’s hard to understate how important and valuable this tool and ability is to people. Hundreds of comments mentioned it.

User Voice:

“LinkedIn is a great resource for developing professional knowledge, network and careers updates.”

“But for LinkedIn, I never would have met one of my most trusted mentors, and I would have missed out on the career opportunity of a lifetime. Thanks, LI!”

“LinkedIn provided me with an active and engaging network, people I would never have met without this platform, whom I would never have dared to approach either”

“This site is perfect to reaching out across the world and communicate with other professional sharing the same passions through different backgrounds and cultures.”

2) Sourcing Talent

If you’re looking for entry to mid-level white-collar talent, you can’t beat LinkedIn in most domains. There are exceptions (eg engineering, financial services), but for your next marketer, recruiter, accountant, or consultant, LinkedIn is without a doubt the place to go.

User voice:

“Jeff, my company leverages linked in to learn more about potential hires and source talent.”

3) Reconnecting and maintaining relationships

Staying in touch with people is hard — especially as you get older, your career progresses in different directions and your network grows larger. Students, as well as professionals young and old, find it a great way to reconnect. With the new features in the mobile app (card based reminders plus a new messaging client), it’s now even easier. It’s painless to send congrats and message people you haven’t seen in a while.

User voice:

“Thanks to LinkedIn I’ve been able to reconnect with those past colleagues and share new interests and ideas.”

4) Career guidance

Students and people young and old are having success figuring out what they want to do, by contacting folks and alumni they know. It’s a powerful way to figure out as a student what careers are available, what they’re like and whether they’re ultimately a fit for you.

User voice:

“I have enjoyed LinkedIn, I began using an account as a sophomore in college, I didn’t know what career path to choose and it made me nervous since I was graduating early in just a year, I talked with Land-o-Lakes recruiters who were very helpful. I looked into project coordinating internships with purina and other feed sales training internships. LinkedIn has let me explore my options by talking with different recruiters and business men and women to figure out what I was interested in. Currently, I am a life style product specialist for Eaton Farm Bureau Coop in Charlotte, Mi. “

5) Keeping up on industry news

One of the biggest successes LinkedIn has had in terms of engagement is becoming a content platform that matters. Beginning with the influencer program, LinkedIn has become a massive generator of original professional content.

User voice:

“Pulse is reconnecting my writing muse back. I like LinkedIn just as I like Netflix- they both offer me freedom to choose what, whom, how and when to engage.”

6) Personal Branding

Finally, people love looking at themselves and Linkedin has become an engaging way to showcase your career highlights. Plus, with Linkedin’s network analytics, users can discover how they rank compared to others in their industry and network: vanity sells.

User voice: ”It is invaluable for me. I have a huge contact list, have found a number of jobs, got my first Board position and ‘talk’ with the senior people in my industry. Today I hit number 1 in the ‘People Like Me’ section and the top 3% of my 4000 contacts.”

Cracks in the armor?

The 30% minority was equally vocal about their concerns about the platform. Looking a bit closer, we can begin to see some of the limits of LinkedIn. Unfortunately, these limits may present fundamental problems in order for the platform to stay relevant.

1) Too much ‘noise’

With the increase in focus on content, people find it is becoming worryingly like Facebook. Many people like that they can catch news from the industry, but people find their feed noisy. Instead of seeing only job changes and professional news, they’re bombarded with inspirational quotes, quizzes and other bits of digital trivia. It feels irrelevant at best, distracting at worst.

Just yesterday, stalwart Silicon Valley veteran @JohnBattelle posted a plea for Medium not to ‘become LinkedIn Pulse.’ From experts to normal users, LinkedIn has begun to feel noisy to many.

User voice:

“Looks more like Facebook… Both good and bad !”

“Haven’t been using it very much lately because it’s becoming another Facebook. There are way too many people on here promoting things that don’t have anything to do with work or any kind of profession”

2) A large and impersonal network

LinkedIn is your network of everybody. People you met at a conference over a few cocktails; your coworkers; old classmates: all ‘Connections.’ But most people know that’s not how relationships work. Relationships live, they grow and die over time. Your best friend in college may not take your call so quickly 30 years later.

And that’s one issue people are finding with LinkedIn. It’s getting too big and diffuse to be meaningful, and feels increasingly less human. The story below about the work anniversary really hit home the problem I myself have found with LinkedIn. You can’t tell ‘genuine’ thoughts from mindless button-clicks.

User voice:

“I had an odd experience today with my 12th work anniversary notifications. I started replying to everyone for their well-wishes and realized that they are all form-fill type responses. It made me feel dirty and unwanted — haha — not really, but just seemed very depersonalized.”

3) “Drowned-out from great opportunities”

On a network of everybody, everybody can contact everybody. Unfortunately this means that there are a lot of inappropriate requests mixed in with the valuable ones — the network is feeling more spam-y.

User voice:

“The sales tools are not helpful if potential clients are bombarded with messages like mine.”

“Still a long way to go Jeff. I would love to be more connected with potential business projects in my field. Right now it’s too cluttered.”

“I don’t think using LinkedIn makes it easier to find work. My experience with LinkedIn, 1 out of ten recruiters bother to respond back to emails.”

4) Not relevant for senior folks

In a follow-up post we’ll see that many senior-level folks have not created LinkedIn profiles. Why? Because of the issues highlighted above. CEO’s and decisions-makers don’t need to be on LinkedIn; many don’t want to be. And that’s a problem for aspiring leaders.

User voice:

“The single-biggest problem with LinkedIn is that it COULD be much more powerful and relevant than it is; a lot of decision-makers at companies, in large part because they’re decision-makers, don’t have time to be on here a lot.”

A way to dethrone LinkedIn?

It’s clear LinkedIn is going nowhere. They consistently surprise on earnings and are a hugely well-run organization.

However, no tool can be everything to everyone (even at their size) and, as a result, there are areas where LinkedIn is vulnerable.

Enterprising companies willing to go all-in and bet big on some of these weaker areas might, just might, be able to dethrone LinkedIn.

Ryan Founder and Head of Product, Shortlist February 2016