Why LinkedIn sees messaging (and bots) as the next frontier for networking


Ken Yeung

September 29, 2016

On the heels of LinkedIn’s 10 year anniversary, I once explored the company’s progress from yet-another social network to one that impacted the way we worked. In the years since, efforts have accelerated around advancing our professional careers, moving from just a place where we connected, to one aimed at facilitating education and growth. This is all part of LinkedIn’s vision, something chief executive Jeff Weiner described on Thursday as “creating economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.”

In the past three years, LinkedIn has seen millions join its platform, having increased membership by 67 percent from 225 million to 450 million. Although it pales in comparison to Facebook, LinkedIn is still a major force within the professional space and while launching new apps left and right tailoring to different segments, one thing that appears clear is that LinkedIn is about to go all in on messaging, something much more than before.

Conversation is part of what makes LinkedIn

“People are using [LinkedIn Messaging] to have great conversations with recruiters and their connections. They’re doing it faster than before and it’s giving people a great reason to connect with their networks,” explained Mark Hull, LinkedIn’s senior director of product management and who oversees the company’s messaging, groups, and relationships products told VentureBeat in an interview. “No one really likes networking, but they’ve built an amazing network on LinkedIn. Messaging has made it possible to leverage your network…you can’t stay on top of all your contacts at the same time.”

Currently, LinkedIn said that more than half of its members interact with messages weekly, but that wasn’t originally the case. Until last August, the service’s message tool was rather archaic, falling behind the instant messaging-like feature users enjoyed on Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Skype — it was the equivalent of an email service provider. To get Messaging where it is today, LinkedIn utilized the team and technology from two acquisitions: Pre-meeting intelligence startup Refresh.io and meeting collaboration tool Mumbo.

LinkedIn messaging experience 3

Hull stated that in the early years, LinkedIn may have had the greatest database of connections and information behind it, but it wasn’t focused on the conversations. “The contact was no good without conversing with them,” he remarked. “The next thing you want to do is converse with your contacts, maybe ask questions, solve tough office work, sending stickers, etc. It’s the centerpiece among teams, colleagues, alumni from school, and potential business partners. Conversation is a pillar of what LinkedIn is all about.”

But unlike with Facebook Messenger, Skype, Google Hangouts (or Allo), the type of people using LinkedIn Messaging are all professionals. “If you think about the kind of relationships on LinkedIn, they’re professional in nature. If you hear from someone on LinkedIn, you know it’s going to be professional and meaningful,” Hull said. That’s the expectation that the company wants where you’re in that networking frame of mind as you peruse through people’s profiles, job listings, the news feed, and more. If you’re looking to advance your career or connect with someone, you’re not there to ask about cooking recipes (unless they’re a chef), but more about how to get connected into role at their company, what skills do they need, or to talk about their experience.

LinkedIn’s goal is to continue driving engagement to messaging, something it teased on Thursday at a media event. Hull claimed that it’s “very high” and that it’s become a meaningful member-to-member format because it’s not a medium that’s flooded by marketing messages — you don’t have brands shilling their products wantonly. LinkedIn’s growth in messaging is that you’re not getting pinged by people willy-nilly as the company focusing on trying to bring serendipity to the forefront.

linkedin messaging experience 1

“From a general perspective, the sales and recruiting cases (paid channels) represent a significant minority of communications, while the vast majority are professional in nature,” Hull said. “It’s one of the reasons why we felt so comfortable with having a messaging service.”

The company takes a look at who you’re talking with, what you might be interested in chatting about, what you’d like to say. When you’re reaching out with LinkedIn Messaging, you’re already reaching out to the right person with an objective, such as looking for an opportunity, background information, advice, and more. Hull believes that with this professional context and understanding of the conversation’s nature, LinkedIn can provide the relevant insights.

The next era of messaging

Hull shared that LinkedIn’s focus is now on helping members “unlock the power of networks through smarter and productive conversations,” highlighting that there are two types of discussions being had. Within the context of networking, members are interested in reconnecting, soliciting advice and leads — “there are thousands of these activities every day.” On the other hand, for premium members that use LinkedIn InMail, there are 500 million exchanges made so far.

“We believe in technology for how it can change people’s lives for the sake of conversations,” Hull said. To that, with every change being made in LinkedIn’s ecosystem of apps and services, messaging has become thrust into the forefront of the discussion. Whether you’re looking at someone’s profile, job listing, read an article of interest by an influencer or through Pulse, or have another professional need, the company is trying to make messaging possible without changing the context of what you’re doing.

LinkedIn Messaging now understands context of the conversation, shown here with the social network's 2016 redesign.

Above: LinkedIn Messaging now understands context of the conversation, shown here with the social network’s 2016 redesign.

Image Credit: LinkedIn

“We want to make it easier to have a conversation with anyone that matters, be it the right people in your network, people you’re connected with, people in a company, address book, etc. If you have a strong relationship, you should be able to reach out.”

Soon, LinkedIn promises more intelligent systems that will make conversations more productive, including things like scanning your calendar for availability so when you message someone that you both should meet, a prompt will display to show open time slots. Additionally, it’ll provide more contextual-based information about people you’re meeting, similar to what you’d get from Rapportive, while also looking at where you’ve met your contact previously. The idea is to put the focus back on building up networking instead of trying to stress around the logistics.

Another messaging feature LinkedIn plans on releasing is providing a dossier on people you’re meeting, helping you prepare for your encounter, showing all the pertinent information about their professional careers. And with the launch of iOS 10, you’ll be able to use Siri to send voice-based messages to contacts.

Bots are coming to LinkedIn

LinkedIn Messaging on mobile

Above: LinkedIn Messaging on mobile

Image Credit: LinkedIn

To achieve this next phase of messaging’s purpose, LinkedIn has built a bot that Hull described as an “assistant.” It’ll sync with your calendar to show available time to meet with someone. And while this mini-application is the first for LinkedIn, don’t expect the floodgates to open with access being granted to third-party developers. With a professional focus, the company isn’t interested in letting bots that you’d find on Facebook enter its territory. In fact, LinkedIn wants to be more guarded to ensure that the right experience is provided — perhaps especially after Facebook’s David Marcus remarked that bots were “overhyped and underpowered.

Weiner cautioned that more will be done with bots in the future, but for right now “the team is starting to walk before they run. They want to illustrate some use cases in regards to professional networks.” He admitted that under Microsoft ownership, there’s likely additional resources that’ll let LinkedIn do some interesting things, especially around the area of conversation. “Over time, when you start to introduce Microsoft’s library of capabilities, there’s going to be some exciting things happening,” LinkedIn’s CEO opined.

One could assume that over time, LinkedIn could open up its messaging service and data to third-party developers to build relevant bots for. However, while still testing the waters, expect the company to explore other bot-like services to improve the messaging experience in the future.

“We’re trying to create a foundation to help people have the conversations they want,” Hull shared. “We have features to do basic collaboration work. The next step is to understand what people want to do with the conversations: Is it general preparation for meetings? Check-in code? LinkedIn is learning from the conversations.”

He continued: “The idea is to remind people that networking is an important thing and conversations can be made easier. All the things are relatively new for a wide audience. It’s an effort to make it simple…that it’s conducive to a member’s lifestyle.”

This article was written by Ken Yeung from VentureBeat and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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