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10 Ideas to Take LinkedIn to the Next Level: Because It Needs It (Sorry Guys)

In many ways I think LinkedIn has a much more interesting story than Facebook.  They’ve made very few mistakes, they’re trusted where Facebook is not, and they’re well positioned to be the Business Social Network, while Facebook is not for business.  

Yet something is missing.  LinkedIn doesn’t get nearly the attention that Facebook does.  They are announcing a few new initiatives, but there is not the sense that they’re exploding with momentum and changing the world.  Facebook changes their UI by adding a few tabs and it’s big news.  Whether it’s mighty Facebook or little Twitter, these others get more respect than Facebook.  I’m convinced it is a combination of product and positioning, and the antidote is radical innovation.  LinkedIn needs to show the world they can lead the way and not just follow in Facebook’s wake.  Here are 10 ideas that could take LinkedIn to a whole other level if they implemented them:

1. Build, Buy, or Partner with Xobni and Nail Down the Outlook Connection

There are rumors that Microsoft is in acquisition talks with Xobni, the cool Social Graph add-on for Microsoft Outlook email users.  That’s bad for LinkedIn.  Xobni lets Microsoft build the first tier of LinkedIn’s information (people’s current business contact info but not their history) almost instantly from the huge installed base of Outlook users.  LinkedIn needs a strong answer to this threat.  Yes, I know, I have the LinkedIn Outlook Toolbar and I’m sure LinkedIn thinks they have this base covered, but they don’t.  Xobni just does it slicker, and it is so critical to seamlessly integrate with Outlook for LinkedIn’s domain that more work is needed.  The most crucial advantage is Xobni’s contextual information.  As you move through mail, Xobni provides updated info on the sender without any need for keystrokes or mouse clicks.  By contrast, the LinkedIn toolbar has “Search”, where I retype the name and then it just does a vanilla search on LinkedIn with that name.  Sorry, but that’s just lame. 

Get the Xobni hotness whether by hook or by crook.  You can build the technology yourself, partner with Xobni for a special “LinkedIn” enabled version, or acquire Xobni.  Personally, I would take a stake in Xobni, partner, and acquire a little later.  I believe they’d like to stay independent a little while longer.  At least the blog is still talking about investors.

There are only two companies that can pose a credible threat to Xobni:  Microsoft controls the Outlook side, and LinkedIn is the cloud presence for what Xobni wants to do.  Strategically, both companies need to come to grips with this.  If Microsoft acquires Xobni (and remember that Bill Gates himself demoed Xobni recently), LinkedIn had better have the base covered without Xobni.  Convert this strategic problem into an opportunity by creating a transaction or partnership with Xobni that has a bigger potential and that will be more fun than just taking a quick Microsoft cash out. 

It’s probably time to crank up the Business Development engine at LinkedIn anyway, so start here and make sure something good happens!

2. Start a Coffeehouse with WebEx to Foster More Interaction between LinkedIn’s Members

Speaking of Business Development, LinkedIn needs a strong partnership with WebEx.  Why?  Because WebEx can be the communication medium behind a new Coffeehouse experience for the LinkedIn Community.  Business people probably spend more time collaborating with others in various ways  on WebEx than any other Social web platform, including LinkedIn.  It’s the ideal location shifted way to have a high bandwidth dialog, whether that involves a demo or just being able to gather around the same PowerPoint slide show. 

A Coffeehouse experience would be one that makes it easy to schedule WebExes via LinkedIn’s Social Graph.  Would you like to get together a round table of experts to kick around some idea?  Use LinkedIn to set up the WebEx by helping identify the right people, sending invites, and then coordinating the whole experience.  Make it easy to put out notices that you’d like to have a Coffeehouse meeting about some topic or other and let people sign up for it.  This could rapidly become an indispensible market research, sales, and communications tool, and LinkedIn has a vital role to play that is greatly enhanced by bringing in WebEx.  Ultimately, the two will come together as an offering with a revenue split of some kind.  You can certainly paint a bright future for why Cisco should want to get involved in this way. 

One more reason to get that Business Development engine fired up.

3. Expand LinkedIn’s Premier PeopleSearch Status to a Full Ecosystem with API’s, Toolbars, and Widgets

PeopleSearch is a term I made up that amounts to getting an instant virtual profile on anyone just by typing in a name, title, email, or other identifying characteristic.  We all rove the web, and one of the most important semantic entities on the web is people.  LinkedIn is a wonderful tool for finding people this way and learning more about them, but currently you must go to LinkedIn to get this benefit. 

Like Google and others, LinkedIn has to create this valuable point presence to a broad ecosystem that cements their leadership position.  This is done by extending LinkedIn’s unique capabilities to other web properties via API’s, toolbars, and widgets.  This would enable a huge number of interesting tie backs to LinkedIn.  Let’s consider just one example.  Blogs have had a blogroll feature for a long time, where they list blogs they link to so that you can see that list and go to those other blogs.  LinkedIn could provide a “PeopleRoll” feature for popular blogging platforms that automatically lists names written about in the blog and provides links back to their LinkedIn profiles.

LinkedIn is well positioned to own the business PeopleSearch market.  To do so requires taking the final step of reaching outside LinkedIn to let others take advantage of this unique capability and create a larger ecosystem.  I know you’re working on API’s, but make sure it’s really great, get it out there already, get people talking about it more, and make sure there are toolbars and widgets for key social platforms out of the box so you can get started without programming.

4. Overhaul and Tune Up the UI

I know.  You just launched a UI overhaul, so why another one?  Because your overhaul was totally incremental, and sorry to be brutally honest, but the Internet pretty much yawned.  Why?  Because there was nothing new there.  At best it eliminated a few negatives, but it didn’t blaze any new ground.  It didn’t turn people on.  One of my old bosses used to joke that every time you hire a new VP of Marketing it costs a fortune because they insist on rebranding and never have much to show for it.  That’s what the facelift feels like.  I could barely even find anyone in the blogosphere that wrote about it but Techcrunch whose conclusion was, “these updates feel like an attempt to mimic Facebook.”  Another was Laura Bergells who dubbed it a hideous new look.

Let’s work this out:

The LinkedIn UI grew more organically than systematically.  There are a lot of little quirks and things are often hard to find.  Just a couple examples: 

– Search focus at startup:  Go to eBay or Google.  You can start typing a search immediately.  Go to LinkedIn.  Focus is shifted away from the search type in immediately and you have to annoyingly go select the search box.  It’s a little thing that points to the need to fine tune the UI.

– Make it easy to eliminate duplicate profiles.  I know lots of people that have duplicate profiles on LinkedIn, and I frequently see dupes in search results.  I don’t know a single one that got there intentionally.  It just happened to them and they don’t know why.  Nearly all of them would like to easily merge the duplicates so they have a single profile.  Clearly there are some usability problems at work here.

–  Groups sound intriguing, but even in the new UI they’re buried.  There are notices like, “The groups directory is not currently available for new groups.”  Come on now, that’s pretty lame.

Worse, there’s no innovation here.  Like the other web players say, you seem to be just chasing Facebook. 

LinkedIn needs a real UI overhaul.  It needs a richer, sexier look and feel, as well as real usability improvements.  Pursue a deep overhaul, one that will be a big improvement and not a lot of little incremental improvements.  Make Facebook’s incremental improvements such as tabs look lame.  Find some serious Social Networking UI innovation to call your own.  Do a bunch of usability testing, hire real experts, do a full on invitation-only beta, and when you’re sure you have it right, launch with big fanfare to capture the marketing and momentum value.  Strive for an Apple-quality final product and then keep the religion going as you move forward.    

Last UI suggestion:  Make this next overhaul around Adobe Flex.  Since you just had an overhaul, you can do the Flex version and offer it in parallel.  This will look better than launching another total overhaul in six months. 

5.  More Mobile Hotness:  Personal CRM for Road Warriors

I’m a Road Warrior.  I have my iPhone or Treo (support the iPhone wondefully, support the Treo/Blackberry/et al adequately) in hand.  I am immediately pre- or post- meeting with someone from my company, a customer, or a new prospect.  How can LinkedIn help me to be more successful?  It could be the total must-have application after voice and email on a mobile, but it isn’t.

The current mobile interface is better than none at all, but it scratches the surface.  The world is clearly used to the idea that LinkedIn does not innovate on UI, and especially in this area, else why would Techcrunch write an article, “LinkedIn Goes Mobile–Finally” that opens by saying LinkedIn is six months late compared to Facebook. 

The best mobile devices are all in the hands of business people, not college kids dating.  LinkedIn has disappointed here when it should be establishing thought leadership.  Yes, I want it to be very convenient to invite people using my mobile device as soon as I meet them.  But I also want instant business intelligence on anyone I meet, hear about, or am about to meet.  I want the ability to add personal notes and reminders attached to names.  I want to link all that to my LinkedIn nerve center so I can get organized and do something about it.  In short, I want LinkedIn to be the hub of my own personal CRM system that manages all my contacts in the world and gives me a 360 degree view of what’s happening with them and what I need to do next to manage my relationship with them for the better.

6. Do Some Heavy Lifting in the CRM and Marketing World

Speaking of CRM, LinkedIn is in the catbird see to be the quintessential must-have component for a CRM system.  When my salespeople connect with a prospect or customer, a LinkedIn PeopleSearch API needs to bring back to my screen a profile on that person so I have a quick précis on who they are.  Salesforce Labs has what is basically a demo version of this, but it’s time to look for some heavy lifting to do here.  Your future will have as much to do with the Enterprise world as the Web world, and you have some catching up to do there.  This is a way to get fully engaged in the Enterprise.

Get a package of functionality together that will really move the needle and go out and partner with Salesforce and others to get it out there.  This is a service you can charge for and do a revenue share with the CRM vendor.  Start from the profile I mentioned.  Move on to being able to slice and dice marketing data using additional attribute information from LinkedIn.  That slicing and dicing is part of the Business Relationship Semantic Web function that I’ll describe in a minute.

Let companies go in and figure out benchmark style information.  If they send you a list of their customer’s names and titles, you should be able to tell them how much of the available market of similar titles is left out there.

Your database has the information needed to make a lot of this other software really come alive and dance.  Get companies to use your system as the source of truth for identity.  When customers register, have them choose which LinkedIn profile is theirs rather than entering all the data fresh.  If the customer has no profile, take the opportunity to sign them up.  Facilitate de-duping and richening of in-house lists with new data about names that have already opted in so there are no privacy issues.

7.  Get More Private and Premium White Label Services for Companies

This is a rich area for innovation.  Companies will find most of their people are already on LinkedIn.  How can they leverage LinkedIn while still controlling the Trust Fabric enough to be comfortable?  It needs to be possible for companies to have LinkedIn features that are totally private to them and their employees. 

One simple example: an employee skills directory.  There’s already a lot of information in LinkedIn about experience.  Skills go deeper.  Let companies and individuals add skills information and then make it easy to search on it.  I need to find someone who knows how to set up memcached with MySQL.  I need to find a machine tool operator at our firm who has used live tooling on a CNC lathe.  Let companies enter internal contact information that is not accessible outside that group.  This way I have the telephone extension or internal email immediately for everyone in the group, but only my company has access to that.  I’ll bet you’d be surprised at what companies can do with the ability to add fields to a profile that are only visible to the company or group.

Another:  facilitating internal recruitment.  This is a big plus to be able to manage internal opportunities and offer them first internally.  LinkedIn is ideally suited to help facilitate that.

Procurement:  LinkedIn has been about people.   But people are involved in procurement of goods and services.  Why isn’t LinkedIn ideal for facilitating that?  Why do we need some other alternative market like Elance or others?  Give companies a way to be in control of this and they’ll be excited about it.

8.  WebMentions:  Link out of LinkedIn to web mentions

When I want to know who someone is, I go to LinkedIn for a quick overview and then I try to track down mentions of the person on the web.  LinkedIn can streamline and own the entire process.  As I mentioned recently, one of the unique things the web enables is linking.  A site called “LinkedIn” needs to develop the currency of linking out.

How about a newsfeed for each person that’s entirely a list of places on the web where the LinkedIn person is mentioned?  Given all the information in a LinkedIn profile, it should be easy to construct a search that returns pretty clean results.  This feed should have not just random web mentions of the person’s name but more specialized and specific contextual mentions ala their bookmarks on, StumbleUpon and Digg, recent photos on Flickr, music on and videos on YouTube.  Those are more or less socially related.  In addition, LinkedIn needs to seek out the business related.  If the person is an officer in a company, there should be a link to the Management page on that company’s web site.  If they’re mentioned in a press release, that should be called out too, because press releases carry a lot of interesting semantics versus random web mentions.

Let the individual optionally mark mentions as “that’s not me” so they disappear from the list.  The individual must remain in control of their profile. 

9.  Better Searching inside LinkedIn

What if I search for someone and they’re not there?  It would be extremely interesting to know that people are trying to find me on LinkedIn.  How about coming back instead of saying they’re not there and asking for an email?   Suggest sending an invitation to LinkedIn on the behalf of the person providing the email.  Before doing that, make sure the email doesn’t turn up inside LinkedIn.

What if they have a common name?  Help guide me through the process of refining the search.  As it stands, the search field is cleared every time and I have to retype my old key words together with some new keywords to refine the search.  That’s silly.  Try a search in Google or any other search engine.  They don’t clear the search terms because you may need them to refine your search.

10.  Create a Business Relationship Semantic Web

The Semantic Web enhances the search-ability of the web by going beyond just words and adding tags that convey meaning unambiguously.  The problem is in creating all that tagging.  What if LinkedIn stakes out the strategic ground around semantic information about people?  In a sense, this is just part of the whole PeopleSearch idea, but it’s more than that too.  It’s about taking people information as it appears in plain text, and adding enough behind-the-scenes context that algorithms can process it without human intervention.  One simple example is disambiguation.  Put the proper tag around the name “Bob Warfield” that says it is “LinkedIn’s Bob Warfield” and you’ve added a lot to that name by uniquely identifying which “Bob Warfield” is being talked about.  Now take it to the next step.  What’s the standard set of things someone wants to know about a person beyond their name?  What is their current job seems like one that is right up LinkedIn’s alley.  LinkedIn understands education as well. 

What can we do with this?  Quite a lot.  At the simple end, imagine a little popup like you see around links on this page, only it pops up whenever your cursor hovers over a name.  In the popup is quick information from LinkedIn and the ability to click to go to the profile and learn more.  That’s a widget you’d provide for others to make use of, such as blogs.  That one is definitely more on the PeopleSearch end of the spectrum, but it could work off the semantic tags to tell it what to display.  What LinkedIn would be doing is trying to get out on the leading edge of defining how the Semantic Web processes names, titles, and perhaps companies.  It would provide a toolkit that makes it easy to link back into LinkedIn ala the disambiguation example whenever a name or title is referred to.  What this accomplishes is powerful integration and query facilities. 

Becoming the owner of Business Relationships and People in the Semantic Web is a very long term strategic goal.  It isn’t a single or even a small set of features or technology.  It means participation in a lot of groups and it will be a time sync for some very smart people.  But if you pull it off, it is worth its weight in gold.  It’s the sort of thing that transcends mere features to change the way people use the web. 

So there you have it.  10 ideas.  Don’t jump on all of them at once, but don’t ignore all of them either.  Something needs to be done to show the world that LinkedIn is not just a fancy way to exchange business cards on the web.  Kick things up a notch!

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