how a new breed of influencers is transforming the business networking giant

When someone mentions social media, you probably don’t immediately think of LinkedIn. But it is clear that the business networking site has held firm: it has now been 20 years since it was founded in Silicon Valley.

It was the brainchild of Reid Hoffman, an American entrepreneur who worked on an early social media platform for Apple before launching one of his own in 1997. SocialNet was a dating and business networking site, but folded two years later after failing to find a large enough user base in those early days of the web.

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman at a conference

Hoffman went on to become a senior executive at PayPal and earned a substantial amount of money when it was taken over by eBay in 2002. This helped him co-found LinkedIn on December 28, 2002 with a team of former SocialNet colleagues, thus becoming its first managing director and then executive chairman.

It was a time when everyone was realizing the importance of one-to-one interconnection and peer-to-peer interactions. LinkedIn was launched in May 2003, just ahead of Myspace and Facebook. But where they and others like Friendster have gone after the consumer market, Hoffman’s company has always been business-oriented.

how it grew

LinkedIn was originally created as a place where users could share their resumes and build a network of people who could recommend them. It took some time for the service to find its footing via innovations such as the ability for users to upload their contact books (2004), as well as job listings (2005) and public profiles (2006) .

LinkedIn went international in the late 2000s, first opening a UK office in 2008 and introducing Spanish and French versions the same year. Jeff Weiner, formerly of Yahoo, took over as CEO the following year as the company transformed into a full-fledged business.

It has made money from premium features that allow users to do things like email outside of their network, send promotional emails, and access analytics. It also sells advertising space and packages to help recruiters attract talent.

It went public in 2011 with a valuation of US$9 billion. This helped finance a wave of acquisitions that gradually integrated new features into the platform, such as the publication of articles (2015) and videos (2017).

The company was acquired by Microsoft in 2016 for US$26 billion (£21 billion). With Hoffman joining the Seattle giant’s board the following year and Weiner still CEO of LinkedIn today, Microsoft has taken a relatively passive approach to ownership.

Pandemic Benefits

Today, LinkedIn is arguably the seventh largest social network after Facebook/Messenger, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok. In 2021, it had nearly 824 million users in 200 countries and territories, of which 6% (49 million) are premium subscribers, paying a minimum of $29.99 per month.

Not only does LinkedIn’s business focus attract a high-end user base, it’s also young. The majority (59%) is made up of 25-34 year olds, followed by 18-24 year olds (20%) and 35-54 year olds (18%). It generated over $10 billion in revenue in 2021.

The biggest social networks in the world

Bar chart showing the largest social networks by number of users

Bar chart showing the largest social networks by number of users

LinkedIn has had a “good” pandemic, with conversations on the platform up 43% and content sharing up almost 30%. It benefited from a change in the way people networked, linked to the findings of numerous studies that it is the “weak links” in our professional networks that are most important for gleaning critical information that leads us to the jobs we we really want.

At a time when the usual barriers of time and space were less relevant and Zoom calls were ubiquitous, now has become a great time to reconnect with those casual contacts. Especially with so many people questioning their professional status, LinkedIn was the perfect place to view their posts and reach out to them.

This means that LinkedIn played a key role in the big quit, especially since, like the platform, this movement was dominated by millennials. Users posting about changing or quitting a job would attract a large number of likes and comments, inspiring others to do the same. The fact that so many people are connected on LinkedIn has multiplied the effects, making it both the main catalyst and the main solution for employers.

Growth of LinkedIn users over time

Line chart showing LinkedIn user growth over time

Line chart showing LinkedIn user growth over time

Meet the ‘work-influencer’

LinkedIn’s role as a lightning rod for work issues is also likely to determine its evolution, with the emergence of a new category of social media influencers: “work influencers”. Companies are increasingly finding that employee LinkedIn profiles and posts can better express the brand than corporate accounts, allowing them to grow the corporate network much more quickly and naturally.

When done right, employee messaging is usually much more authentic than corporate PR. Rather than just writing about career milestones and triumphs, people have become more open and honest about day-to-day work life.

More than 13 million LinkedIn members have their profiles set to “creator mode” to gain greater visibility for their posts. Many use the hashtag #careertiktok to post things like their salary and daily vlogs about their professions, achieving over 1.5 billion views.

This new “online water cooler” represents a shift in the amount of information people reveal about their work on the Internet. Workers are raising once-taboo concerns such as pay transparency, discrimination and job impairment. Some professionals, like lawyers, entrepreneurs, and HR experts, have leveraged their positions in new content marketing ventures and other profitable side businesses.

Twenty years after LinkedIn’s founding, this could allow the platform to enjoy the kind of trust and community growth that other social media networks would envy. Admittedly, there are challenges – fake accounts are a problem, for example. And LinkedIn inevitably attracts a lot of spam, which is probably one of the reasons why it doesn’t reach the same number of daily interactions as other social media.

On the other hand, it benefits from not having a single major direct competitor. The closest big ones would be Facebook groups or Reddit, but LinkedIn’s purely commercial focus is still likely to be a plus against such players. At a time when traditional platforms like Facebook and Twitter are struggling, LinkedIn has a real opportunity to continue to succeed as the only dedicated platform of its size.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The conversation

The conversation

Theo Tzanidis does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.

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