Why LinkedIn is a Sleeping Giant of Publishing

Let’s say you were to construct the ideal business publisher from scratch. It would have a strong tech platform that doesn’t slow down because of too many users or ads. It would foster direct connections. It would also have writers who were the most influential people in their industries. It would be digitally native. And it wouldn’t be overly reliant on ads.

Now look at LinkedIn. Back to the ideal business publisher. Now back to LinkedIn.

Over the last four months, LinkedIn, always living in the shadow of the sexier social platforms, has quietly built out a publishing platform. It is now a publisher in its own right, under former Fortune editor Dan Roth, with LinkedIn Today feeding aggregated articles from more than 1 million publications to LinkedIn’s 200 million users based on their preferences. It complemented that with an original publishing effort around “influencers,” recruiting a who’s who of business like Richard Branson, T. Boone Pickens and Ari Emanuel, and about 250 others.

“We went out to find the top people in various industries, folks who, universally, people wanted to know about and drove business conversation,” Roth said. “The internal frame was, if we put on the world’s best conference, who would you want? The idea you can ask top minds in business to share or reveal something about themselves in an authentic way, it’s important for us.”

The combination could become extremely powerful. LinkedIn already gets about 46 million unique visitors per month, per ComScore. Compare that to a Bloomberg Businessweek with a print circulation of about 1 million and about 6.7 million visitors per month. LinkedIn isn’t about to win Pulitizers, but its content is bound to expand. The hard part of a platform is the tech infrastructure, which LinkedIn has in place. How many publications wouldn’t kill for LinkedIn’s revenue model? Half of its $972 million in revenues for 2012 came from its recruiting services, which is one of its revenue streams. Selling ads and subscriptions are the other two.

The Influencer effort began back in October 2012 with the goal to go beyond matching stories with people and instead offer its users a window into the minds of business people at the top of their industries. For the Influencer platform, LinkedIn, for the first time, brought the “follow” option to the platform. LinkedIn also created its own CMS for this. Writers have their own login to the CMS and can see who their followers are, what industries they’re in, what seniority level.

The concept of a social network having a blogging platform isn’t entirely new or unique. Consider Tumblr or WordPress, even. Both platforms have social components to them. This platform is a move away from that notion, or even the “digital Rolodex” moniker.

When people post content on Twitter or Facebook, it’s usually flight-of-fancy information. In part, that’s because the ADD style of those social networks focuses on the stream of a feed. LinkedIn Influencers, instead, is an actual platform. The bigger issue, though, is how and why people use the different social networks. As Roth put it, “You’re not on LinkedIn at 3 a.m.” Translation: no drunken rants on LinkedIn.

The other benefit, Roth sees, is that there’s no anonymity on LinkedIn. Everyone’s writing — the “Influencer” and anyone who comments — is tied back to a professional reputation. If you make a comment, your employer, employees, future employers can see what you’re sharing. People are thinking hard about what kind of comments they’re making, so you see little, if any, trolling — a coup for a blogging platform.

And the posts do well. Take a look at Richard Branson’s most recent post about “Where I Work: surrounded by people (and swimming in tea).” It was shared 600 times on Twitter, 2,500 times on Facebook and 8,300 times on LinkedIn. Then there are the more than 2,000 comments. Roth said that some posts have crossed the million view mark, and the site has seen an eight-fold traffic increase to LinkedIn Today over the last year.

The underlying implication, however, is that LinkedIn wants its users to stay and get content they can’t get anywhere else. Through a business lens, this makes sense as the more often and longer people stay, LinkedIn can serve more job opportunities — which is where the company makes half of its revenue — and get advertisers to pony up more money on ads targeted at LinkedIn’s user.

This is all part of a broader plan for LinkedIn. In the last year, it redesigned company pages and introduced targeted status updates as ways to drive what it calls “engagement” — shares and comments.

LinkedIn has also discussed introducing a sponsored content unit where companies pay to deliver content to its followers, though a spokesperson said this not related to Influencer content. In its fourth-quarter earnings call, CEO Jeff Weiner said last month it began a test: “working with some very large-scale enterprises, some blue chip marketers, folks like GE and Xerox, the Economist, BlackBerry. They are taking repositories of content that they’ve built up over time — white papers, expertise, customs-related practices — and they are now able to serve that content at a status update and target specific followers of theirs on LinkedIn.”

Roth said that LinkedIn is seeing high engagement around the posts precisely because people understand the value they can get by being seen as a productive member of a conversation started by a popular and influential person. And while LinkedIn can play a numbers game in the engagement arena — if there are 200 million users, even if only 1 percent are active, articles could get viewed 2 million times — Roth says that there’s no such thing as guaranteed engagement.

“It’s 100 percent about the quality,” he said. “Posts that aren’t high-quality posts do badly. Even though they’re titans of industry, they don’t like seeing poor engagement. They’re competitive and want coaching on how to make content better, to get people to read and share and comment. We’re not guaranteed success by our numbers. It doesn’t mean they’ll come or read.”

Image via Shutterstock