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It's only been two years since LinkedIn entered the online-publishing business through its Influencers program, which signed up 150 business celebrities—the likes of Richard Branson and Jack Welch—to write essays for the site.
Since then, publishing original writing has become a key strategy for LinkedIn. It has 100 million potential writers instead of 150. And their output is transforming LinkedIn from a job-hunting site to a media operation aimed at bringing professional knowledge and insights to the world.
See also: LinkedIn Is Looking For The Next Nate Silver
Here's how important the strategy is to the company: Ryan Roslansky, LinkedIn's head of content products, now reports directly to CEO Jeff Weiner. Roslansky recently joked with ReadWrite about the number of emails a day he gets from Weiner (except when Roslansky's on vacation, when Weiner gives him a break). And Weiner regularly discusses the progress of LinkedIn's publishing efforts in the company's quarterly earnings calls with Wall Street analysts, crediting it for an increase in the the time users spend on the site. It's clear that the content operation is closely watched from the top.
LinkedIn engineers, product managers, and editors now work out of an office in San Francisco.
And the company has opened up its first U.S. engineering office outside its Mountain View, Calif. headquarters in San Francisco. Over the summer, it moved hundreds of engineers, product managers, and other employees 40 miles north, into a building on the edge of San Francisco's Financial District.
Those open, light-filled expanses on Howard Street are just temporary digs for LinkedIn's media empire. The company has leased a 450,000 sq. ft. tower under construction nearby which will open in 2016 and eventually house as many as 2,500 employees. (That will include the content team as well as a separate sales office currently located elsewhere in San Francisco.)
A Place Apart
The relocation of an entire product group to a new office away from the core engineering team at headquarters is practically unprecedented. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple are trying to keep their engineering groups under one roof at big new headquarter buildings—and when they acquire startups, they typically make them move to home base.
LinkedIn's move has drawn relatively little notice compared to the attention showered on Pinterest, which had less than 50 employees when it moved from Palo Alto to San Francisco, or even companies like Deem and Appirio which relocated wholesale from Silicon Valley to the city. It will make LinkedIn one of the larger tech employers in San Francisco: Twitter, for example, currently has 2,000 employees in the city.
San Francisco has a different vibe than Mountain View.
The San Francisco office effectively gives LinkedIn's content operation its own distinct identity and a measure of independence, much like Google has afforded YouTube, which it kept on its own campus south of San Francisco after it bought the online-video startup in 2005. (How independent? Weiner, the CEO, had trouble getting into the office when he forgot his badge and the building's guards didn't recognize him.)
LinkedIn has been busy buying startups, too—like SlideShare, which moved from its own small office in San Francisco into the LinkedIn building. There's also the team behind Pulse, LinkedIn's mobile news-reading app, which relocated from San Francisco to Mountain View a year ago when LinkedIn bought the company, and is now moving back to the city. And there's Newsle, a San Francisco-based news-search startup, which LinkedIn acquired in July: Newsle's team never called Mountain View home, moving straight into the new San Francisco office instead.
The SlideShare team is one of the groups that moved into the new office.
San Francisco is an obvious location for a media operation. LinkedIn's future content headquarters is across the street from CBS Interactive, where CNET has its newsroom, and a few blocks away from the home bases of Wired, TechCrunch, ReadWrite, and other publishers. Medium, the longform publishing platform started by Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, is a few blocks away, and Twitter itself is just a few more blocks down Market Street.
LinkedIn hopes its new location will let it hire engineers, product managers, and editors from the same talent pool as those companies.
Publish Or Perish
Those employees will work on various ways to read and publish material on LinkedIn—from the Pulse mobile app and Web feed, to SlideShare, a tool for sharing presentations, documents, and videos, to LinkedIn Groups, communities of interest on the site.
But the star of the operation is LinkedIn's publishing platform, which began as an idea roughly three years ago. Initially, Roslansky, the content-products chief, wanted to make every LinkedIn member a publisher with the flip of a switch. But Weiner advised him to hold off and start with famous businesspeople first.
Weiner hired Dan Roth, a former editor at Fortune and Wired, as LinkedIn's executive editor. (Roth, who's based in New York and has an editorial team there, has a few editors reporting to him in the new San Francisco office. Full disclosure: Roth and I worked together at Time Inc.) Roth went about recruiting LinkedIn's first publishers—the Influencers—and hired a team of editors to pick headlines for LinkedIn's homepage.
LinkedIn employees listen to a show-and-tell session.
From those 150 Influencers, LinkedIn gradually expanded its publishing tool, from 25,000 members in February to 15 million in July. Now, in the U.S., all 100 million members now have the ability to publish longer pieces to the site, and LinkedIn will expand that to other English-speaking countries by the end of this year.
In total, those using the tool are producing 7,000 pieces on an average weekday, a LinkedIn spokesperson told ReadWrite. Writers on Medium, by comparison, are publishing roughly 1,000 to 1,500 posts a day. The 1,330-person newsroom of the New York Times publishes 700 articles a day.
Managing editor Marisa Wong picks presentations and videos uploaded to SlideShare to feature on its homepage.
The Times may beat the average LinkedIn post in quality, but what LinkedIn has in its favor is diversity and relevance—a wide swath of professionally-geared writing that ranges from sales tips to growth strategies to surviving office politics. LinkedIn doesn't pay writers, but it does give them a built-in audience, solving the tricky problem of distribution faced by people who publish on their own website using blogging tools.
LinkedIn's content business faces a host of challenges, from persuading more members to publish to vying for reading time with all the other demands on people's attention. It may face the stiffest competition from sites like Quora and StackOverflow, which have done a good job of appealing to specialists looking to share highly technical knowledge.
At least, though, LinkedIn has a campaign headquarters for this battle—right in the buzzing tech-and-media epicenter of San Francisco.
Photos by LinkedIn engineer Sylvain Kalache