Will This Turn LinkedIn Into Another Facebook?

It was just a year ago that professional social networking site LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD  ) surpassed a company milestone: Over 200 million users. Fast-forward to today, and LinkedIn boasts a whopping 277 million members. Those numbers don't come near social media king Facebook (NASDAQ: FB  ) and its 1.23 billion active users, but LinkedIn's member growth in just a year is impressive, especially when you consider its emphasis on professionals.

In an effort to engage its members, and provide additional value, LinkedIn kicked off its "Influencer" service in late 2012, featuring the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson. The idea was to give big-hitters like Gates and Branson, among others, a forum to impart their business and professional wisdom to the rest of us. Good idea, and it seems to have caught on, as the number of influencers has jumped to about 500. Now, LinkedIn has decided to open the floodgates, as it were, and let everyone in on its self-publishing content game. And while that sounds good, it also opens the possibility of LinkedIn becoming a little too Facebook-like.

The specs
LinkedIn has worked hard to maintain and grow its brand: A network of professionals supporting and sharing with other professionals. Be it job hunting, endorsements, or the building of like-minded networking groups, LinkedIn has done a nice job of branding itself as the pro's social media destination. The distinction between LinkedIn and Facebook is obvious, and it should be.

The notion of tapping into its members' experience and knowledge, particularly folks like Gates and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, with its influencer initiative is working wonders. According to LinkedIn, its influencer posts average 31,000 views, more than 250 likes, and 80 comments: An impressive set of stats. In an effort to build on the success of its influencer program, LinkedIn is opening up the ability to post unique content to about 25,000 people starting Wednesday, with more to follow.

The plan is to give LinkedIn members the chance to gain knowledge and insight by utilizing its most important asset: the experience of its professional user base. Like Facebook, LinkedIn wants to further engage its members, keeping them on the site longer and coming back for more, both of which will drive advertising revenues and, hopefully, increase LinkedIn's Premium Subscription and Talent Solutions sales in the process.

Initially, self-published content will only be viewable to a user's own professional network. If readership of a particular post takes off, LinkedIn will make the content available beyond individual networks. Self-publishers won't receive any compensation for their posts, regardless of whether it "sticks" or not, but it will become a part of a user's bio. For LinkedIn, it would seem self-publishing and expanding on its influencer program is a no-brainer: Free content and more engaged users.

What if?
Unlike Facebook's new Paper app that uses reams of data and pushes out content based on its reader's habits, LinkedIn's plan is to use member-generated content. But how does LinkedIn monitor self-published posts, particularly as the new feature expands across the LinkedIn universe? Unfortunately, there will almost certainly be content that has little to no value for anyone in a network, and others that are simply inappropriate. True, a poor or offensive post isn't likely to make it outside its original network or group, but it's easy to see howl LinkedIn's professional image could suffer.

Along with poorly written or uninteresting posts, there's also branding to consider. LinkedIn is what Facebook isn't: It doesn't include pictures of someone's dinner plate, or stumbling upon a conversation that really should have stayed private. And the distinction from Facebook is something LinkedIn needs to maintain; it's what makes it LinkedIn.

Final Foolish thoughts
As the recent article indicates, I am an unmitigated LinkedIn bull. Weiner and team have done an excellent job in diversifying LinkedIn's revenue streams, and built a brand that matches its objective of being all things professional. With that in mind, it's difficult to see LinkedIn dropping the ball with its self-publishing feature, and becoming too Facebook-like. But as the self-generated content doors fly open, it will be interesting to see if LinkedIn is still LinkedIn a year from now.

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