Could LinkedIn become the MySpace of social networks?

Unless it integrates with sites like Facebook, LinkedIn may go the way of that other social network that’s collecting dust.

Would anyone be really upset if LinkedIn disappeared tomorrow?

It’s safe to assume that recruiters scouring the site for new talent and current shareholders would be peeved, even if the stock is trading at half price from the IPO. But how would the lack of an online destination affect everyday users?

Users who are tethered to their mobile phones and enamored by the promise of applications, innovation and integration?

Of the top 10 most trafficked social networking sites, LinkedIn is a bit of an anomaly. Its success is not dependent on status updates, games or rich media content, but on connecting individuals around professional interests and capabilities.

Even with 135 million registered users, LinkedIn has (not surprisingly) had difficulty keeping the attention of its user base. Members spend an average of only eight minutes per visit (source: Google DoubleClick Ad Planner).

Compare that with the new social media darling, Pinterest.com. Traffic to Pinterest has grown a whopping 40 percent in the last six months—and its 13 million users spend an average of 15 minutes and 40 seconds on the site—nearly double the time spent on LinkedIn.

With numbers like these you can’t help but wonder how LinkedIn will compete for mindshare when interest-based social networks are stealing bigger pieces of the consumer engagement pie.

If I was Reid Hoffman, I’d A) — be a lot wealthier, and B) — try a new approach that liberated LinkedIn from its .com chains by focusing more on applications and integration.

From a functionality standpoint, the standalone LinkedIn.com destination doesn’t offer anything that can’t be found or easily deployed within Facebook or Google+. However, as a brand, LinkedIn has established a lot of credibility with business professionals and has become the de facto standard in online resumes.

But there is only so long LinkedIn can maintain that credibility without innovating to better meet user needs. It’s only a matter of time before someone does “LinkedIn” better.

Opportunities and competitive challenges

Facebook’s Open Graph applications present an interesting opportunity and risk for LinkedIn.

Of the initial 80-plus applications within the Timeline Apps catalog, Monster Worldwide managed to squeeze in the LinkedIn competitor Branch Out. Although the application struggled initially, the feature set is nearly identical to what is offered by LinkedIn, and deeper alignment with Facebook could gain significantly more interest.

Considering Facebook’s 800-plus million global user base and the staggering amount of time users spend on the social network per visit on average (23 minutes and 20 seconds), Monster’s move to integrate Branch Out deeper into the Facebook ecosystem presents significant risk to LinkedIn’s externally-focused strategy.

To date, LinkedIn has focused more attention on bringing users from Twitter, Facebook and Google+ deeper into its social network. Users have linked accounts to share their activity in these more populated destinations rather than participate within the LinkedIn destination itself (we’ll see what happens when users realize the Twitter application is no longer supported as of Jan. 31).

The result has been a redundancy in content and value. While some of the LinkedIn groups are thriving, many times it’s still not enough to warrant a separate destination as participation is infrequent and the feature is not dramatically differentiated from Google+ circles or Facebook groups.

LinkedIn has traditionally held the user base close to its vest and been strict about third party application development and sharing information. However, the opportunity to bring down some of those walls, innovate and integrate is now. While Branch Out may not be a competitor in the long run, it’s only a matter of time before someone approaches the professional audience and delivers a more seamless experience with a unique feature set.

With such a powerful brand presence, LinkedIn has the opportunity to own the professional dialogue and connectivity across social networks, and not just on LinkedIn.com.

Time for LinkedIn to re-engage

As it’s become such a trusted resource in finding, evaluating and hiring employees, the LinkedIn “seal of approval” carries weight and should be amplified to encourage more connections, conversation and action.

It’s not a new concept. In 2010, LinkedIn tried to deploy an application in Facebook, but it failed miserably (9,000 likes compared with 398,347 for Branch Out). Why LinkedIn chose not to continue its integration with Facebook is a bit of a mystery, but it’s time to re-engage.

The development of a robust application could dramatically increase interaction and time spent among LinkedIn’s core user base. It also creates an opportunity to gather more data about members and enhance advertising targeted around interests and behaviors.

If LinkedIn’s core functionality was more portable, it could more easily integrate with highly trafficked and engaging social networks and eventually, permeate corporate websites.

Just think about how LinkedIn’s engagement would change if it was effectively integrated with Facebook, where 81 percent of users log in at least weekly (in comparison with the 14 percent of users that log in to LinkedIn)? (Source: Mintel “Use of leading social networks, June 2011”.)

LinkedIn as a social network is too valuable and useful to disappear entirely, but without some strategic adjustments, it faces the biggest challenge from competitors and entrepreneurs. Segregating itself from others and facilitating fringe connections with Twitter and others is a missed opportunity.

That said, if there was one social network to watch over the next two years, I’d place my bets on LinkedIn—if it strives to innovate and integrate. Otherwise, it could become the MySpace of professional social networking.

Kevin M. Green is the vice president of strategy at Digital Influence Group, a full service digital marketing agency located in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He blogs regularly at Green Matter Thoughts and can be reached on Twitter @kevinmgreen. For more on his professional background, you can visit Kevin’s LinkedIn profile. A version of this article first appeared on DannyBrown.me. (Image via)

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