Inside LinkedIn: the Rise of the Normcore Social Network
How the professional platform became a site that millions of people check every day — even when they’re not looking for a job
Like most people, Goldie Chan turned to LinkedIn because she was out of work.
It was the end of 2017, and after years of working in digital marketing, she was taking a one-month sabbatical before she figured out what to do next. Scrolling through her LinkedIn feed, which at the time was mostly filled with job updates and the occasional news link, she saw a video icon next to the share box. LinkedIn was starting to experiment with native video content, and she had been invited to join the private beta.
Chan thought creating videos for the burgeoning video platform might be a good way to pass the time before she found her next job. “That way, it’d look less like I had a gap from being gainfully employed,” she says. The next day, Chan made her way to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Los Angeles to shoot her first video. Little did she know, LinkedIn Video was about to change her life.
LinkedIn’s audience has grown over 60% and its revenue has nearly doubled, to over $7 billion.
Chan does not look like the typical Patagonia-vest wearer who you might expect to be big on LinkedIn. Her go-to look is cat-eyeliner and an electric-green bob, covered by her signature bowler hat. She’s more prone to chat about Dungeons and Dragons than sales funnels and cold emails. But for the two years after that fateful day in August 2017, Chan posted a video to LinkedIn every single day, amassing over 6 million views.
Chan represents a larger shift in LinkedIn’s demographic. Once known as a platform for white-collar professionals to host their resumes, LinkedIn is now a learning platform, a media company, and a software-as-a-service provider. Three years ago this week, Microsoft purchased LinkedIn for $26.2 billion in its largest acquisition ever. In the three years since, LinkedIn’s audience has grown over 60% and its revenue has nearly doubled, to over $7 billion.
“Engagement is growing at a faster rate than ever,” says Ryan Roslansky, LinkedIn’s global head of product. “And we’ve done it in a fairly boring way.” It seems fitting that LinkedIn, the khaki shorts of the social networks, takes pride in its pedestrian approach to growth. “We’re here to build a business, not to create something cool,” cofounder Konstantin Guericke told Business Week in 2006. On an internet where foreign governments treat Facebook like Gutenberg’s printing press and white supremacists breed hate speech in Twitter’s petri dish, perhaps LinkedIn is the normcore social media we need.
Reid Hoffman started LinkedIn in 2002 with two fundamental hypotheses. First, he believed the cartoon avatars of ’90s discussion forums were about to give way to a web of real identities. Hoffman’s first company, SocialNet, was a platform for connecting with others who had shared interests. His first angel investment was in Friendster, a social network that differentiated itself by requiring its members to use real names and pictures. Like Friendster, Hoffman wanted LinkedIn profiles to connect to real identities. (Ironically, in the first half of 2019, this site took down 21.6 million fake accounts.)
Connecting profiles to real identities wasn’t just about optics; it has also been a key mechanism to keep LinkedIn civil. “Anything that lives on your profile is part of your professional permanent record,” says LinkedIn editor-in-chief Dan Roth. “If you are writing something, you know your employees are going to see it, your employer is going to see it, and a recruiter from your future employer is going to see it, too.”
Second, Hoffman believed “viral loops” would be the key to growth in the digital era. Like a virus that infects a person and causes them to share it with others, a viral loop is a means of growing a business where your customers happily become your salesforce. After SocialNet, Hoffman joined his Stanford buddy Peter Thiel’s startup PayPal, which had already mastered the viral loop by, well, paying people. It was their business, after all. PayPal gave $20 to new users and their referrals. Within a month of launching the refer-a-friend program, PayPal had over 100,000 new users.
No LinkedIn growth hack will live on in greater infamy than “broetry.”
Throughout LinkedIn’s history, the company has used viral loops to grow. At first, LinkedIn was by invitation only. The first 13 employees sent out invitations to their professional contacts, who then invited their contacts, and so on. LinkedIn became more valuable to members with each additional person on the platform, so members were incentivized to help it grow organically. LinkedIn’s infamous “someone is looking at your profile” emails create a viral loop for engagement. They entice users to sign in and look at others’ profiles, which triggers more emails.
But Hoffman knew that if he wanted LinkedIn to break out of the Silicon Valley bubble, he would have to find people motivated enough to try something new. And there are few people more willing to give something a shot than people looking for a job.
The first proof that LinkedIn could actually make money came in 2005 with the release of LinkedIn Jobs. The company had made a half-hearted effort to sell ads through an ad exchange called AdBrite, but it wasn’t until it started charging employers $75 to post a job that the cash started rolling in. Later that year, LinkedIn launched a premium version that allowed recruiters to contact potential candidates, and by 2006, the company had upgraded its advertiser tools to better target users on the site. A decade and a half later, a mix of subscriptions, B2B tools, and ads still drives the lion’s share of LinkedIn’s revenue. But unlike some of its social networking peers, LinkedIn did not put all of its eggs in the advertising basket.
According to MIT professor Ethan Zuckerman, “advertising is the internet’s original sin.” By making advertising the default business model, internet companies enter a Faustian bargain where they are incentivized to surveil their users and optimize for engagement, regardless of the costs. Researchers have shown that content which elicits negative emotions — like outrage or disgust — drives the most engagement on social media. This puts companies like Facebook and Twitter in a bind: the most toxic content on their platforms drives the most business.
LinkedIn has been able to avoid some of the vitriol of Facebook and Twitter because it isn’t overly reliant on advertising. But despite its diversified business model, LinkedIn has still made its fair share of gaffes in the pursuit of engagement and growth. About five years into its experiment with advertising, LinkedIn launched a product called Social Ads which let brands use social cues, like a user’s connections, to personalize sponsored content. The problem? This was incredibly creepy. Imagine scrolling through your feed only to see an ad from your employer, using your picture next to the copy. The company quietly shut Social Ads down.
Perhaps LinkedIn’s most-exploited growth tactic was the address book importer. The tool allowed anyone to download their LinkedIn contacts to a .CSV file, complete with the connections’ names, email addresses, companies, and positions. You can only imagine the number of spam emails from salespeople and marketers that resulted from the exploitation of this feature. But no LinkedIn growth hack will live on in greater infamy than “broetry.”
Seemingly overnight, the same type of post started to appear in LinkedIn feeds everywhere. The posters almost all had a short-on-the-sides-long-on-top haircut and the same 🚀emoji in their job title. And the posts all carried the same form:
A short, provocative first line.
Then, a line break. (Always a line break).
Followed by a provocative second line.
If the reader wanted to read on, they would have to click the “see more” button. Every post was about “a lesson learned the hard way” or “a tip I wished I’d known sooner.” This strange new genre of pseudo-inspirational corporate-speak became known as broetry.
Around 2017, a group of growth hackers, a term born from early-stage startups who needed massive growth on a small budget, found a loophole in the LinkedIn newsfeed: The algorithm deemed any clicks of the “see more” button as an engagement similar to a “like” or “share.”
To take advantage of this insight, people like Josh Fechter, the co-founder of the marketing agency Badass Marketers and Founders (BAMF), started writing long, one-sentence-per-line stories about marketing, management, and entrepreneurship. Fletcher told Buzzfeed News his “broems” racked up, on average, around 4,000 engagements and 600,000 views per post. (LinkedIn has since adjusted its algorithm to curb the spread of this viral click-bait.)
“What I love about LinkedIn is that the editors are taken out of the picture. It’s a direct connection to an audience that cares about what I care about.”
Although the amount of broetry has since fallen, engagement remains a top priority for the platform. Two years after Microsoft acquired LinkedIn, Microsoft’s board decided to tie Satya Nadella’s compensation partly to “number of times logged-in members visit LinkedIn, separated by 30 minutes of inactivity.” In other words, they wanted Nadella to make sure LinkedIn was a place users checked every day.
In many ways, broetry was a perfect encapsulation of the content LinkedIn was known for — thinly-veiled boasts, masquerading as insightful dad-wisdom. Innocuous in isolation, but, in the aggregate, a never-ending business school happy hour. Since 2011, a veteran journalist has been trying to change that.
If you told Reid Hoffman in 2002 that LinkedIn would employ a team of over 50 journalists in 2019, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. Hoffman and his founding team were software people; they thought in bits, not bylines.
When Dan Roth, a longtime editor at Fortune magazine, walked into his first meeting with Jeff Weiner, Hoffman’s successor as CEO, in 2011, he was similarly out of his element. At the time, Roth was tasked with trying to make Fortune more like a tech company. Part of that mission was to build an app called the Fortune 500+ to equip salespeople with data on the companies they were selling to. Fortune had a decent data set on companies, but LinkedIn had the data on the employees. “I really had no idea what I was doing,” says Roth. “I had my first call with a product manager, and I had never even heard of that title.” Roth was at the meeting to try to get Fortune access to the LinkedIn API. Weiner came back with a better offer.
After the meeting, Weiner reached out to Roth and said, “We’re going to be moving into content — why don’t you join us?” Roth wasn’t really sure what to make of it. He was a news guy. He had spent years as a writer and an editor at Fortune, Wired, and Forbes. What would he have to add to a tech company? Weiner had been CEO for less than a year and had recently taken the company public. But he had a vision that Roth couldn’t yet see: If LinkedIn wanted to make professionals more successful, the company would have to help professionals know what was going on in the world around them. They would have to get into the news business.
In the eight years since Roth joined the company, LinkedIn has broken out of its shell as a networking site and become a bonafide media company. Roth leads a team of six dozen journalists that curate news and produce original content. But, for the average user, LinkedIn is not known for its journalism. The site’s Facebook-like feed is still filled with job updates, memes, and humble brags.
LinkedIn has largely steered clear of the disinformation that plagues Facebook and the hate speech that plagues Twitter precisely because it has stayed in its lane.
Andy Raskin, a strategic messaging consultant and LinkedIn power user, has seen the type of content that does well on LinkedIn change. “It used to be that long-form articles did really well — now it’s very personal, vulnerable posts,” he says. Raskin was a journalist and editor at Time. Inc., but now LinkedIn is where he chooses to share his writing first. “What I love about LinkedIn is that the editors are taken out of the picture. It’s a direct connection to an audience that cares about what I care about.”
As the line between work and not-work starts to blur, the LinkedIn feed is starting to look more and more like the feeds of other social networks. Couples have begun to post their engagement photos. Creators like Chan have started to post Snapchat-style selfie videos. Work is becoming a larger share of individuals’ identities. Whether you’re sharing an update about a promotion or confessing your love of junk food, on LinkedIn, it’s all an opportunity to build your brand.
In 2015, the designer Frank Chimero posted the 12 words he believed could be the universal caption for every New Yorker cartoon: “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.
In the 17 years since its founding, LinkedIn has been the butt of its fair share of jokes. There’s #LinkedInFlex, the hashtag dedicated to the site’s corporate sweet nothings and @BestOfLinkedIn, a Twitter account dedicated to “highlighting the heroes and influencers brave enough to share their stories in an effort to inspire others.” But for all that is vanilla about the platform, one thing has remained true: The company knows who it is. The mission of LinkedIn — “to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful” — has stayed virtually the same since it was five guys working from Reid Hoffman’s Mountain View apartment.
LinkedIn has largely steered clear of the disinformation that plagues Facebook and the hate speech that plagues Twitter precisely because it has stayed in its lane. The fact that it is boring has become its competitive advantage. Now, with the heft of Microsoft, the company does not have the same pressure to squeeze out extra revenue at the end of each quarter or litter its feed with sponsored content. It does, however, have to keep users engaged and coming back to the site — Nadella’s paycheck depends on it.
Perhaps the best measure of LinkedIn is its impact on business culture.
Historically, LinkedIn’s struggles have stemmed from monetization and integration. From the time it went public to the time it was acquired, LinkedIn’s earnings and stock price were an unpredictable seesaw. By comparison, Facebook, which went public a year after LinkedIn, has steadily moved up and to the right in both categories. Analysts largely agree that LinkedIn botched the integration of online education platform Lynda.com, for which it paid $1.5 billion in 2015. And in 2016, LinkedIn was forced to shut down Bizo, a business marketing tool, which it paid $175 million to acquire less than a year earlier. Recently, LinkedIn has had to manage an integration of its own.
After Microsoft acquired LinkedIn in December 2016, rather than appoint one of his loyal deputies to manage the integration, Nadella chose Weiner, someone who knew next to nothing about the inner workings of the Redmond mothership, to bring LinkedIn on board.
In the three years since, Microsoft has maintained the same laissez-faire approach to management. Despite some grumbling about no longer being able to use Google Docs and Gmail, current LinkedIn employees seem to be relatively happy with how Microsoft has let LinkedIn run itself.
Today, we don’t have the same view into LinkedIn’s business as we did when it was public. We know that in 2018, LinkedIn made $5.3 billion for Microsoft, which was almost twice Twitter’s 2018 revenue. At the end of the 2019 fiscal year, LinkedIn announced it had 645 million members, which is over 40% higher than when it was acquired. But the value of LinkedIn can no longer be judged by its share price. Now, it’s just one gear in the Microsoft machine.
Perhaps the best measure of LinkedIn is its impact on business culture. LinkedIn has become a site that millions of people check every day — even when they’re not looking for a new job. It has grown, one bland connection request at a time, into the elephant in the boardroom we can’t ignore. Cofounder Guericke summed it up best: “We’re here to build a business, not to create something cool.”