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

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed June 16, 2017
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.