LinkedIn shuts down groups API – marketing mishap or smart community move?

SUMMARY:

LinkedIn put the final kibosh on its LinkedIn Groups API recently. The reaction raises questions about marketing blasts versus community – and the walled social gardens businesses must negotiate.

It’s a cynical tradition we’ve all come to dread. A promising social site launches with a slew of APIs. A vibrant third party community of apps emerges, then, one by one, the APIs are shut down, politicized, and monetized.

We’re too jaded now to be surprised when our favorite third party apps go belly up. Bob Warfield reminded me of the ire I once felt over such things with his statistics + rant,  Get Ready to Give Up on LinkedIn for Marketing. I have some fundamental disagreements with Warfield’s post – disagreements worth airing as they bring the debate over community versus marketing to a head. Or, as I see it, how marketing is being disrupted.

It’s worth reading Warfield’s entire post, but the gist of his argument is that:

  • LinkedIn shutting down its groups API is a setback for marketers, particular those like him who don’t find LinkedIn to be an exceptional value for referrals.
  • Because LinkedIn is not a huge traffic driver for Warfield’s CNC Cookbook site, it doesn’t make sense for Warfield to manually post content to each LinkedIn Group.
  • Therefore, Warfield is done with LinkedIn for marketing.

Warfield’s post is more of a short FU than a definitive treatment, so he doesn’t address two issues:

LinkedIn’s groups API shutdown – spammer crackdown or blatant self-interest?

Some might argue that “LinkedIn shut down its group API to protect groups from spammers.” I don’t believe that’s true. LinkedIn’s groups API supported a range of capabilities, including:

  • Get Group Discussions by Popularity and Recency
  • Get My Group Memberships
  • Get Suggested Groups
  • Join a Group
  • Post new group discussions
  • Comment, like and follow group discussions
  • Establish connections with other professionals

Warfield’s ticked off about the “post new group discussions” shut down. If LinkedIn was attempting to stop auto-posting to groups, it could have simply locked down that capability and kept the rest of the API service calls open. So, any rationalizations that LinkedIn shut down its groups API for the sake of its communities is apologetic BS wishful thinking.

I can’t say with certainty why LinkedIn shut its groups API entirely, but I can say this: Facebook offers users no ability to monitor their groups without visiting the site. LinkedIn is desperate/determined to achieve the same “must visit constantly” level as Facebook.

The ability to monitor discussions or feature them without actually visiting the site strikes at the core of a social network’s monetization model which is: you. You, logging in every time you want to check something, perpetually bolstering the social graph with fresh data on your behavior and preferences, that in turn is sold to advertisers.

Social media users who want to centralize on their own dashboards are out of luck. RSS junkies like me who prefer our own newsreaders as our home base are also, by definition, kinda screwed, with Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter shutting down RSS access a long time ago (though I still have reliable RSS workarounds for Facebook pages and Twitter profiles, F you very much).

When Warfield’s piece first came out, I said this in hits and misses:

I don’t blame LinkedIn for wanting to prevent folks from auto-posting into twenty groups at will – that’s not marketing, that’s carpet blasting. And it turned most LinkedIn groups into unreadable cesspools.

Groups expose the flaw in marketing blasts

Groups really fall apart once they become link posting frenzies. The way to derive a marketing benefit from an active group – on LinkedIn or anywhere – is to do the hard work of participating.

To be fair to LinkedIn, they’ve had moderating tools for a long time now – tools that can be used to prevent the cesspool. The problem is most groups remained unmoderated (or poorly moderated) for too long. By then, they were contaminated/abandoned. Shutting down the API doesn’t fix groups. The only way to fix a group is to dedicate yourself to moderating it with diligence.

The best example I’ve seen in the enterprise space are Jarret Pazahanick‘s SuccessFactors groups (e.g. Global SuccessFactors and SAP Community). He’s proven the model for thoughtful curation; the community value is obvious. To which I’ll ask you, what’s the bigger marketing benefit:

  • The ability to spray links in multiple LinkedIn groups at once, providing a modest bump in your web referral traffic from LinkedIn.
  • Being the owner/moderator of a 15,000+ B2B LinkedIn group, with dynamic discussions you help facilitate, and curated content you can send out to all members, many of which receive that content via their own email address?

My take

That’s how marketing goes these days. Attack it head on with blasting tactics, and watch a large, indifferent audience lightly engage with your brand. Build deep content/community with traction, and find audiences opting in for a much more powerful marketing benefit to you – but only as a welcome side benefit of delivering value to them first.

Warfield is no stranger to this line of thinking. He’s written some classics on the power of content marketing to earn opt-ins, I wrote about him in that context here: Breaking through the B2B content noise – how a few pros get it done.

Warfield is right to warn readers about putting too much trust in walled gardens. The big networks move the goalposts at their own whims, and they will again. Given Warfield’s low priority for LinkedIn, his views make sense. That’s an assessment we all have to make. For example, at diginomica, our LinkedIn traffic continues to grow. We see that audience as significant, more important than Facebook or Twitter at this point.

However, our inability to comprehensively understand what is happening to our content inside of LinkedIn is a major turn off. Even though Twitter has locked down a number of APIs also, the public nature of those discussions is a huge help from a tracking and participation standpoint.

That leaves us all to reckon with the upsides of these powerful walled gardens – while contingency planning for their downsides.

End note: for more context, check my colleague Den Howlett’s How LinkedIn is hurting your business which was posted after LinkedIn’s first round of API shuttering.

 

Image credit - Portrait of a desperate businessman © Minerva Studio - Fotolia.com

    1. says:

      LOL, Jon, it’s far from clear manual posting is worth it for Diginomica either. SimilarWeb suggests you get maybe 3-4% of your traffic from LinkedIn. At the same time, you are getting 58% from SEO.

      If I compare your Avg Pages/Visit with the Top 15 Marketing Masters I follow, Diginomica’s average is 1.41 versus 1.84. So, you could bring 23% more page views just by engaging your readers as well as the average Top 15 marketer. Would that be a more worthy investment than all the work on LinkedIn?

      I don’t know what the engagement for your LinkedIn traffic looks like. Is it really that great? For most, the engagement from Social Media is terrible compared to search traffic. Can you measure analytically the value of all that fancy engagement vs the carpet bombing?

      Now you guys at least have the staff to consider direct engagement. I’m just me writing blog posts. For me, the level of effort is better served by spending more time on a variety of higher leverage areas. I suspect LinkedIn will find as so many other Social Networks have that others have higher leverage opportunities as well. After all, not only do they want to pry all the eyeballs to their sites, they then want to monetize them all by forcing larger players to buy as much advertising as they can. They do that by reducing reach, especially for bigger sites.

      Once they’ve tampered enough with the newsfeed algorithms, I think you’ll find you are no longer the proud owner of that 15000+ Group you worked so hard to build. The bank has foreclosed and they own your ranch. You started out a rancher only to discover you’ve become the cow on someone else’s ranch.

      http://bobwarfield.com/beware-web-services-cow-rancher/

    2. Jon Reed says:

      Hi Bob.

      Thx for responding. I don’t think you’re too familiar with my thinking in this area and past writings but i’ve advocated for a long time not to be too dependent on any one social media platform and to build up your hub (web site) first and foremost.

      From there, you make a decision on which social media sites to invest more personal time in, and which you ones you might “autopost” to.

      I have no issue with autoposting to any social network but i personally find that blasting links to groups that are supposed to be community is perceived as unwelcome by most groups. That’s certainly the case in the Facebook group I moderate.

      I think you’ve made a smart decision with your time/biz model/resources and to me that’s the lesson folks should take away from your post. The “debate” is intended to give readers a chance to think through this for themselves.

      The traffic we get from LinkedIn is useful but obviously to your point, yes, SEO is more valuable. For LinkedIn, the value there is engaging with folks who are extremely core to our target audience. That wouldn’t be the case with all businesses.

      I’m pretty cynical about all the major social networking sites I’m simply saying for us, LinkedIn is worth more time than Facebook and Twitter, and the efforts made to engage on LinkedIn do tend to pay off. But we are obviously careful not to over-invest there either, for the reasons you cited.

      “Once they’ve tampered enough with the newsfeed algorithms, I think you’ll find you are no longer the proud owner of that 15000+ Group you worked so hard to build. The bank has foreclosed and they own your ranch. You started out a rancher only to discover you’ve become the cow on someone else’s ranch.”

      True and in the deep past I recall exporting all the email addresses of an early group I ran on there – you can’t do that anymore. I would never recommend someone own a group on LinkedIn as their sole marketing tool. But if you play it right, it can be an effective part of your overall marketing plan. As you know email marketing is very powerful, and being able to do that as a group owner year after year could well be worth the risk of eventually losing that ability – as long as you use the group as part of a broader approach to content assets. Auto-posting links to groups is far less powerful than being able to email thousands of folks in your specialty area who have opted in.

      Thanks for sparking thinking on this, folks should make decisions on where to invest the time with their eyes open.

      – Jon

    3. I gave up on LinkedIn a long time ago. I am aware that we’re not the consumer, we are the product. But starting way back when they shut down Q&A and Events, they’ve been taking away the features that make it useful enough for us to build our businesses and therefore keep returning. I realize their consumers come first, but if they keep chasing us away, they’ll have no product.

      1. Jon Reed says:

        Michael I’m sure you’re far from alone in that view. These big social networks have all pulled a variety of “bait and switch” maneuvers, often alienating.loyal/power users. They are gambling that they can pull in enough new users etc to make up for it, or that we’ll feel too dependent on them to turn away, but to your point it is a risk to turn your backs on businesses or features businesses relied on. For me it’s usually about scaling back RSS feeds that I rely on, but we know these firms are going to act ruthlessly for their own perceived needs. It’s up to us to vote with our time, attention and wallets.

        – Jon

    4. Jarret Pazahanick says:

      Great discussion and I am big believer that you often get out what you put into things and for me LI has started to become one of my go-to places to view content, have Enterprise Software discussions, share content and blogging but with several caveats.

      1. View Content – Definitely not anything close to RSS and send each day unfollowing folks in my news feed who share jobs (sorry recruiters) and content I am not a fan of. RSS feeds (feedly) still is 90% of my content, twitter 5% but LI is now 5% and growing and off that 5% much of it is things I would have not seen through other channels.

      2. Enterprise Software Discussions – I have had 3 threads in the last 3 weeks that have had 40+ comments and over 20K views (not sure how LI analytics tracks views) but still it has become a place where people are willing to chime in.

      3. Blogging – I am now getting 20x the views on LI on SAP/SF content that I do on the SAP Community network (SCN) + more decision makers/senior leaders (from LI analytics). Part of that is due to SAP SCN platform re-re-re-Launch but still impressive as used to be 20X in the OTHER direction.

      4. LI Groups – I am biased (guess I am the cow) 🙂 as I run two LI groups with ~35K Members (thanks Jon for highlighting one of them above) and spend each day moderating content (not easy with LI tools) to ensure that only high quality content is there (no carpet bombers allowed). That means the daily emil that is auto-generated (wish it wasn’t) is always made up of valuable content so people get in a habit of viewing + the ability to do a weekly “announcement” email (I dont monthly) means I am send to the personal or work emails on people who have “opted in” (in a sense) and I can tell first hand the engagement/views are excellent. The key is to start the groups off from Day 1 with only good content which is a lot of work by the group owner. Big thanks to Bill Kutik for showing me the ropes as learned a lot by how he used to manage the HR Technology LI Group.

      At the end of day LI could get rid of the groups one day as do agree that a very high percentage dont offer the same value for group owner or members but for me personally LI has become a very useful tool to share content and how to use it effectively is not easily understood.

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