LinkedIn, and its increasing value as a business tool

A few years ago, LinkedIn was that service whose emails clogged your inbox. Now? Simon Brew reckons it’s found its feet…

LinkedIn on a mobile device

I've always found LinkedIn a bit of an oddity.

Ostensibly the social network for professionals "Facebook, for when you're trying to get a new job", as one colleague once described it LinkedIn has gone through many iterations as it tries to realise its changing ambitions. At its worst, LinkedIn became Just Another Social Network, as crammed with gossip and irrelevance as the rest of them. But as much as people sneered at it and lord knows, I had a go it continued to grow and continued to evolve.

Quietly, it was starting to get really quite useful.

Then, last November, Microsoft announced plans to snap the service up for $26.2bn. Granted, that's smaller change to Microsoft than it is to the rest of us, and the firm has long been on the lookout for a social network service to add to its portfolio, hence its Facebook investments. But still, it's hardly change found down the back of the sofa.

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Microsoft's strategy has long been focused on business customers, and any acquisition that can cement its position in professional circles was unlikely to ever be off the table for the company. With that in mind, perhaps it's odd that eyebrows were raised when the deal was announced. But what I've personally found interesting is that LinkedIn has, against previous experiences with it, become really rather useful to me. And to many others.

It's been a bit of a turnaround. LinkedIn, for a long time, was the service that clogged my inbox with emails from people inviting me to join up, even though I was already on the service. Then, when I spent time on it, sorting through the feed of information it chucked up seemed an irrelevance. There was little sense that it was going to divert me for five minutes, yet alone change my career. Instead, the only use for LinkedIn seemed to be checking out who'd been viewing your profile. Even that got boring after a bit.

Over time, I dipped in and out of LinkedIn, more out of curiosity than professional need. And gradually, it became clear that it was shaping its service into something of genuine use. Granted, the main window is still occupied with a Facebook-like stream of posts, the use of which is determined inevitably by who you're connected with, clever algorithms and whether Richard Branson has bought any more adverts. But I also learned it became the kind of service that was evolving to the point now where I'd argue it's become really rather useful.

I do contend that being the Friends Reunited of business websites is still arguably its finest function, with its vast user base over 400 million accounts, according to 2016 figures, of which around a quarter are active clearly its main asset. I've had people actively track me down and offer me work over LinkedIn, unthinkable even a few years' ago, and I've found myself reconnecting with lost business connections. For work contacts, I can't think of a social network that's more useful now.

Hot on its heels, though, is recruitment. The job-search functionality may yet prove to be LinkedIn's magic bullet. HR departments have embraced the idea of actively searching for candidates through LinkedIn, and a click on the Jobs tab at the top of the screen throws up surprisingly well-targeted positions. The day IT Pro hands me my cards, I'll at least know where to send a few emails.

The downside is and I wonder how Microsoft will eventually weave this into its suite of products to make it more attractive that LinkedIn is the shareware of social media sites, waiting to hook you in before asking for your credit card details. Given how much advertising circulates around the rest of the service, and given that it doesn't actually pay for content of its own, that can't help but rankle a little in the modern era. Particular that those hunting for a job are expected to pay just shy of 25 a month to unlock important, key features. I've never met a recruitment website that'd charge such a price, with the model traditionally putting the weight of cost on the recruiter rather than the recruitee.

But I've learned my lesson. LinkedIn has smartly evolved, occasionally in frustrating directions, but crucially, in a manner that's homed in on functions that are both primary and useful. Sure, there's still a lot of waffle, and people posting blogs that'd overload any half-decent game of buzzword bingo. But if the core idea behind LinkedIn was to be a platform for professional to keep in touch, I'd say it's made some real progress.

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