When, in July 2011, LinkedIn hired Dan Roth, everyone in the media industry thought the “professional” social network was up to something big. Roth came with an impressive résumé: Forbes, Condé Nast Portfolio (a great but ill-fated glossy), Wired, then Fortune, where he served as managing editor before being poached by LinkedIn.
Four years later, Roth snatched Caroline Fairchild, a young, talented writer and editor from Fortune. Again, many thought this was the moment. The trade press, always prompt to draw doomsday scenarios, came up with sensational headlines such as “How Dan Roth became the most powerful editor in business publishing” (Digiday), or “Media frenemy LinkedIn raids Fortune, Wall Street Journal for editors” (AdAge). Worrisome indeed. LinkedIn collects almost 100 million unique visitors per month, hosts and connects 380 million detailed professional profiles—these are all the ingredients required to become a major business news force in a field where the largest players’ audiences are a mere fraction of LinkedIn’s numbers.
Everyone (yours truly included) was wrong about LinkedIn editorial potential; it didn’t became a significant business media player—and most likely never will.
First of all, instead of developing true journalistic content, as expected from its impressive talent line up, LinkedIn opted to bet on quantity. Its PR machine and well-coached execs like to brag about huge numbers. For instance, Dan Roth claims to have “one million writers” producing “130,000 posts per week vs. 40,000 just a year ago.” There’s also the vast line-up of “influencers” picked-up by LinkedIn’s editorial team: 500 people who tepidly pontificate about almost everything. Among those: Richard Branson (8.3 million followers), Bill Gates (five million), always on deck Jack Welch (4.4 million), T. Boone Pickens, and even Arianna Huffington (3.5 million)—another champion of massive, unpaid content.
If Quartz or Politico taste like espresso, LinkedIn’s editorial content feels more like American coffee: cheap, bland, diluted but unlimited refills. Influencers’ prose is as standardized as the carpet of a Midwest Holiday Inn (minus the glowing hues). Here are examples: T.Boone Pickens: “Find people who can do a job better than you can;” the oil magnate also tried geopolitical analysis in listicle-style: “Five reasons the Ayatollahs are bad for business,” in which he regurgitates his podcast utterances.
On LinkedIn, many influencers engage in a massive editorial recycling business: barely edited versions of past TED Talks, lecture abstracts and, quite often, dull gruel most likely written by a young staffer. Should Richard Branson devote so much of his precious time to write landmark pieces such as “Everyone Should Have a Second Chance,” “Want to be more creative? Lose the tie,” “Best advice: Listen more than you talk,” or “How to create fantastic company culture”?
On this latter topic, just ask Arianna: According to The New York Times, The Huffington Post fostered an enviable (or is it cult-like?) corporate culture. In due fairness, many of these contributions gets hundreds of thousands of views, LinkedIn’s audience appears to love it.
As for the chattel of contributors regurgitating half a million pieces per month, you can’t expect quality either. Viewing dozens of their pieces allows patterns to emerge. There are employees anxious to accelerate their painstaking climb up the corporate ladder by exhibiting insight (“Look how creative I am!”); others are mid-level execs who want to display intellectual capabilities beyond their acknowledged skill set (“See, harsh performance-reviewer who makes my life miserable? I’m more than a spreadsheet jockey. I can think, dude.”), or insecure bosses straining to prove to their underlings that they indeed possess a vision for the sector they’re into.
On LinkedIn, every piece has a purpose: self-promotion (“I’m looking for a job, see my expertise!”), promotion of a product, or defense of a cause. All this editorial hodgepodge is illustrated with corny stock photos where everyone looks happy and beautiful.
A discussion with Daniel Roth, while nice, quickly turns to mutual incomprehension. When questioned about the dullness of LinkedIn’s gazillion posts, the executive editor retorts: “You should not look at LinkedIn through the lenses of a traditional media. We are creating something new, here, we’re not looking at existing editorial models. Our editorial has two pillars: curation, and instigation of content. Professionals get better on what they do today with [information about] companies they follow and people they like.”
In defense of his editorial model, Roth directs me to a piece written by an Amazon executive shortly after The New York Times’s devastating investigation of the Seattle e-retailer’s working conditions. Nick Ciubotariu is head of infrastructure development at Amazon; his is a high level engineering position that, most likely, shields him from the inhumane treatment suffered by people described in the Times’s piece.
Ciubotariu spent a full Sunday to write a long 6,500 words plea defending the culture Jeff Bezos created. Of course, as he added with great emphasis, his decision to publish this was entirely spontaneous. Roth and the LinkedIn PR machine mention this as the perfect example of a great contribution: timely, in tune with the news cycle; a wide audience of 1.2 million views and 900 comments, etc. For good measure, Ciubotariu cross-posted his column on Medium, where he got 93 recommendation vs. 3,200 “likes” on LinkedIn. (Medium hosted negative pieces that confirm the Times report. Notwithstanding Ciubotariu’s dutiful defense, the uproar was loud enough to get Jeff Bezos to appoint a director of social responsibility.)
At least, in the Amazon case, the label on the package was clearly Nick Ciubotariu’s, as opposed to some anonymous spear-carrier.
Dan Roth takes the defense of his platform’s transparency to an extreme. For this, he cites the example of a woman writing on behalf New Jersey car dealers who fought against Tesla; you had to get to the author’s profile to understand that she was was on assignment from a business lobby. (I was unable to retrieve the article since, believe it or not, LinkedIn doesn’t have a search engine for its editorial; also, a Google search often ends up with a lots of broken links). On LinkedIn, says Roth, everybody knows who you are. When I carefully objected that it was weird to have to check the author’s background to assess the accuracy and motive of a story, Roth argued that the network effect was the best protection against bad content: “Everybody sees what you write: your colleagues see it, your boss sees it…”
LinkedIn exhibits all the elements of a huge missed opportunity. Its unique base of 380 million super-qualified profiles gave it the opportunity to assemble the largest and the most granular semantic footprint database ever built to push content in front of the right audience.
LinkedIn also has Pulse, the mobile app it acquired two and a half years ago. Probably because it is a smaller team led by Pulse’s founder Akshay Kothari, the app is more technically advanced than the rest of the platform—which is poised to get much-needed improvements, acknowledges Kothari, who declined to give specifics on Pulse app’s audience. In addition, LinkedIn also operates SlideShare, the document sharing platform it acquired in 2012 for €119 million ($133.2 million). Had LinkedIn’s management elected to enter the information business with original, high-quality content, the combination of its multiple assets, scope and engineering capabilities would have made a killing in the sector. Much to the media industry’s relief, that didn’t happen. We were all wrong about LinkedIn because it is genuinely not interested in journalism. It simply doesn’t need it.