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LinkedIn and the New Age of Influence

You’re likely missing the point of this social climber. (And no, this is not another shlumpy article about how to use LinkedIn Groups.)

You get LinkedIn.

You’ve built out your profile, extended your connections to a large number of people you’ve never met, joined groups because you weren’t already getting enough spam each day, created and/or answered patently false questions, and posted self-promotional status updates.

You’ve read a bunch of articles like, “The Top 5 Things B2B Marketers Need to Know About LinkedIn” and “How LinkedIn Can Make You Feel Sexy Again.’’ But you still think you’re missing something.

Well, you are. You’re missing what everyone else is missing too, for now.

From sourcing to recruiting.

LinkedIn changed the way companies fill jobs not by making it easier to recruit, but by making it easier to source. And there’s a difference.

Sourcing is the process of generating names of possible candidates for a specific role; recruiting is all the high-touch stuff that follows. LinkedIn already did the sourcing part so well that it had trouble monetizing its offering. The “free” product—the number of profiles anyone could source free of charge or for a small fee—was already so stunning a resource for professional recruiters that it was hard to convince people to pay $5,000 for a recruiter’s license.

Then suddenly, between 2009 and 2010, LinkedIn’s hiring solutions revenue rose 178 percent to $65.9 million. Seemingly overnight, it created something entirely new, something uniquely possible from its place in the market. Here are the pieces it pulled together:

The database.

Enormous candidate databases and job boards like Monster and Career Builder were here long before LinkedIn. However, LinkedIn redefined the concept of sourcing when it became the default professional networking database—the place where it’s socially acceptable to brag about yourself even while you’re not looking for work. Recruiters no longer needed to pay a job board for access to its candidate database because LinkedIn was the de-facto networking hub.

The social network.

While it lacks the share-everything frequency factor of Twitter and Facebook, LinkedIn has 120 million-plus registered users. Of those who use it, over two-thirds access it multiple times a week. Given its revenue makeup, LinkedIn thinks of itself more as a SaaS company than a social network—but make no mistake, a social network it definitely is.

The algorithm.

Matching tools, which score candidate databases against open jobs, have been around for over a decade. Using artificial intelligence and parsing tens of millions of resumes (and their histories of job progression), these tools seek to predict an idealized level of skills and experience that should lead to a specific next job. Matching tools are more widespread than you think, and today are used by corporations, staffing companies and major job boards alike.

But what LinkedIn can do, alone at this stage, is take all your resume data and test inferences not only about your work history, but with whom  you connect and what you ask/share/comment.

More importantly, LinkedIn no longer needs to take your word for it. Your resume as it currently exists holds less and less credibility. Just as Klout–love it or hate it–is trying to see beyond your easy-to-boost number of Twitter followers, LinkedIn will try to validate your suitability for opportunities based on your broader social presence.

Forget about how many people you’re connected with. LinkedIn will determine not just how many but how influential? Are you connected with the experts in your field of work? How likely are these experts to view, comment on or share any of your network activities? Have they recommended you? And have they written a ton of references for other people, or was yours one of very few?

There have been many attempts at trying to visualize this sort of influence/connection model, including LinkedIn’s own InMaps (I’ve included an image of mine here). In late October 2011 Google hinted at where it might be taking this when it first introduced Ripples.

It’s easy to be deceived by the simplicity and pretty colors of InMaps and Ripples. But just imagine what it all means when additional layers of information about your connections and how you interact with them are inserted into this model. Suddenly, you see candidates very differently.

How likely is it, for example, that someone educated in Atlanta, whose work experience is with a large corporation (for three years), who does not read or share any tech-related news articles with his or her network, and who has no influential contacts in San Francisco, is going to be successful working at a startup?

LinkedIn’s gold mine is in helping us see and understand these connections and interactions. And you can be sure LinkedIn is developing products right now that package this information in ways useful to recruiters.

The new age of influence

There is an awful lot happening in the LinkedIn space. Dozens of companies are in the race to crack recruiting on Facebook, but regardless of what happens on that front, two major trends will shape LinkedIn’s direction:

1.  The growth in free agency: 44 percent of active employees in the United States are now in non-traditional categories (i.e. temporary, contract, part-time, etc.). While the non-recessionary level would be closer to 30 to 35 percent, this is still a large and growing part of the working population. Think about the effect on resumes. Rather than a linear progression through a career, the reality for many is much closer to a skills-based evolution with different projects building up experience (and connections.) Improved skills and connections are the currency of the new job market, and job seekers will prioritize projects based on what skills they will gain and with whom they will work. A traditional resume will increasingly be a very poor template to demonstrate competency in the future.

2.  The rise of “expert:” As more people become disconnected from traditional work opportunities, the need to market their own expertise is becoming paramount. Increasingly, people realize that the creation and curation of content relevant to their networks and target markets are key to their future work opportunities.

It’s this second point that is the most interesting indication of LinkedIn’s future development. Experts need to be able to promote their content, share and comment on others’ content, bring interesting stories to their networks, ask and answer questions, join networking groups and attend events.

The really interesting idea—and one fundamental to the way I see LinkedIn’s future developing—is what is the value of all that interaction? What are the metrics and measurement of influence?

A bunch of companies—Klout, Peerindex, EmpireAvenue and Crowdbooster among them—are innovating like crazy, trying to determine who is influential online, and on what topics. They are easy to make fun of, and in some instances, manipulate. But like it or not—and a lot of long-term bloggers most definitely do not—they provide the answer for organizations that are asking: If the “old” media is dead, and all this “new” media has replaced it, who do I need to work with to get my message out?

LinkedIn already made changes to the way users’ skills can be aligned into niche topics, and in how influential people are deemed to be (within LinkedIn) on certain topics. What remains unclear is whether LinkedIn can attract a large enough proportion of the activity that experts undertake more diffusely on the “web across platforms like Quora and Focus to dominate the space of “grading influence.” 

With these three elements—the database, the social network and the algorithm—all existing together, LinkedIn is quietly dominating the evolving market of talent sourcing.

But the future goes well beyond these three elements. The future of LinkedIn is tied to the growing importance of experts in a free-agent economy, and to the increasing need among these experts not just to create content, but to curate it, share it and distribute it as a way of connecting with potential employers. Employers will no longer rely on your resume, but on your entire digital footprint–a trend LinkedIn is perfectly positioned to determine in the future.

LinkedIn is a window into the changing nature of employment, and how it facilitates and supports this change will ultimately define its success.