LinkedIn spent much of 2012 transforming itself into a place where workers could stay and play a while -- a strategy that paid off handsomely. But the year ahead will be all about making the site the preferred destination for professional content, a transition that could make Wall Street's darling even more bewitching.
The professional network today reported earnings that blew the Street's socks off, so to speak. LinkedIn's stock is trading up close to 10 percent on the after-hours market because the company floored everyone with fourth-quarter adjusted earnings per share of 35 cents, revenue of $303.6 million, and net income of $11.5 million.
Then in a call with investors and analysts, CEO Jeff Weiner upped the company's long-term sex appeal with this statement: "One of the things that we're increasingly focused on in 2013 is going to be the opportunity to support content marketing."
Wait, what? What's sexy about content marketing, you ask? Money -- and potentially lots of it.
Here's what happening: LinkedIn is ready to put on its big boy suit and become more than a second-tier social network where you go to add and maintain connections. Instead, LinkedIn wants to take its best assets -- you, your 200 million peers, and the 2.4 million companies using the service -- and connect them through one big knowledge exchange.
You've seen this deliberate strategy partially play out with products such as LinkedIn Today, the professional e-zine that aggregates and features top news items for you, and LinkedIn Influencers, or anointed experts like Richard Branson who contribute exclusive content to LinkedIn. Weiner said the service has appointed 200 professional celebs to influencer status, and he talked about their contributions as being crucial to LinkedIn hitting 9.8 billion page-views, excluding mobile, in Q4.
Expect even more content in 2013 because, as Weiner put it, LinkedIn sees its future as a professional publishing platform.
"One of the areas where we're making strong traction in is LinkedIn as a professional publishing platform. You see with the momentum we're generating now in Influencers, LinkedIn Groups, Slideshare, people are increasingly turning to LinkedIn to publish professionally relevant content," Weiner said. "We think that's going to create a very strong platform and very valuable context for large enterprises, for small-medium businesses who want to target [and] engage with professionals."
That's a lot of buzzword bingo for this: LinkedIn plans to hook you with business content you can't get elsewhere -- whitepapers, news articles, educated discussion threads, and so forth. When you come back more often and stick around longer -- LinkedIn likes to use the term "engagement" to describe your attention -- the professional social network can get clients to list more jobs and spend more on ads.
The strategy gets extra interesting when you consider that some of the professional content Weiner speaks of will be included inside a new type of LinkedIn ad unit called "sponsored content." With sponsored content, companies can pay to promote their whitepapers and best-practice documents to a select group of the brand's followers. The ad unit, still in early testing, is like a professional twist on Facebook's Sponsored Stories.
"Just this last month, we began a test working with some very large-scale enterprises...folks like GE and Xerox, The Economist, BlackBerry," he said. "They're taking repositories of content that they've built over time...and they're now able to serve that content as a status update and target specific followers."
The professional social network doesn't have a timetable for when it plans to release the units more widely, but Weiner did indicate that sponsored content will be what LinkedIn serves up to smartphone users in lieu of showing them display ads. Currently, 27 percent of LinkedIn's unique visitors are coming through mobile, which means this group's attention has giant revenue potential.
In essence, content is quickly becoming the new connection on LinkedIn.