|Sifting the Professional From the Personal |
By RANDALL STROSS
New Yotk Times
January 7, 2012
AMONG online networking sites, LinkedIn stands out as the specialized one — it’s for professional connections only.
That distinction has given it staying power as Facebook’s predecessors have dropped away and as Facebook has grown to dwarf other sites. By keeping professional identity pristinely separate from the personal and the messy, LinkedIn, which is now publicly traded, has grown to more than 135 million members in 200 countries.
But challengers have arrived, in the form of apps. Rather than starting from scratch, independent software developers are trying to add a professional layer to Facebook — and are hoping that users will accept a less-than-complete separation of the professional and the personal.
“LinkedIn likes to say, ‘Facebook is for fun and LinkedIn is for professional purposes.’ What I like to argue is that’s no longer correct,” says Rick Marini, the chief executive of BranchOut, a start-up that offers a Facebook app for job-related networking.
“I get asked for introductions to my LinkedIn connections all the time.” Mr. Marini says. “The problem is, these are people I’ve met for five minutes at a conference and I don’t feel comfortable vouching for them. My Facebook friends are all my real friends.” (The gregarious Mr. Marini has an impressive number of “real friends”: 1,800 Facebook friends, he says.)
When users join BranchOut, the software pulls information from Facebook about their education, current employer and job title, leaving out everything else.
Excluding things like indiscreet photos, however, doesn’t necessarily make Facebook an excellent basis for a professional identity. BranchOut shows prospective employers a person’s network of Facebook friends. These aren’t likely to have been assembled the way they are at LinkedIn, with the idea that one’s connections will be reviewed by strangers checking on professional qualifications.
“There are some people I’d prefer not to interact with in my professional career, but I’m still good friends with,” says Tom Chevalier, global product manager at Monster Worldwide. Mr. Chevalier oversees Monster’s BeKnown, a Facebook app that competes directly with BranchOut.
BeKnown pulls more information from Facebook than BranchOut does, but it lists friends specifically chosen by the user, and only if those friends consent to be included. BeKnown’s design suggests that users must be careful about what parts of their Facebook identities should be imported into their professional profile.
Why not invest the same amount of time building a profile over at LinkedIn? Mr. Chevalier points to the fact that the average Facebook user visits the Web site more than 30 times a month, and he contends that convenience is important. “By having this proximity to Facebook,” he says, “we can help users think about their career more frequently.”
Applicants, of course, want to go where the most prospective employers are found; and employers, where the most candidates are. In both cases, this works in LinkedIn’s favor.
LinkedIn’s single largest business is selling access to information about its members. They are treated as “passive” job candidates: they aren’t necessarily seeking a job but have signaled their receptivity to new professional possibilities by joining LinkedIn and providing details about work experiences and skills.
David Hahn, vice president for product management at LinkedIn, says his company’s business clients “do not have to put up a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window and see who comes in.” He adds: “They can instead proactively go after the right person by looking over the professional experiences and skills of our 135 million-plus members.”
The company says 75 of the Fortune 100 companies are clients.
LinkedIn receives an average of 95 million unique monthly visitors, according to comScore data for November 2011. The Facebook apps are lagging far behind. BranchOut, founded in July 2010, is drawing about one million unique monthly visitors, occupying 298th place last week on AppData.com’s leader board for Facebook apps; BeKnown, introduced in July 2011, has only 170,000.
MR. MARINI concedes that LinkedIn has command of the professions, but he says that leaves ample opportunity for BranchOut to serve others. LinkedIn does a good job addressing the smaller part of the work force considered to be “white collar/managerial,” he says. The remainder, he adds, tends to be on Facebook — “blue-collar, hourly, temporary, cashiers, clerks, construction workers, returning military.”
Mr. Hahn of LinkedIn says his company “welcomes anyone who thinks in terms of a career instead of a job.” Using a broad definition of “professional” adopted by the International Labor Organization, LinkedIn says there are an estimated 640 million professionals out of a global work force of approximately 3.3 billion, leaving plenty of room for the site to grow.
Mr. Hahn notes that Facebook users clearly love games like CityVille and Texas HoldEm Poker, which draw millions of users. But the relatively minuscule use of the Facebook apps that venture into professional profiles or networking, he says, is “evidence that users clearly want to keep their professional lives separate.”
Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: email@example.com.