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Microsoft Links In

LinkedIn logo on a wall beside an elevator leading to an office reception area

Unless you have recently either looked for a job or tried to recruit somebody to fill one, chances are you have not been spending much time on LinkedIn.

I use LinkedIn more than most people do. Mainly this is because I and my colleagues at Palisades Hudson write so much and are quoted in the press so often – pretty much daily – that we have a lot of content to share. I have three times as many followers on LinkedIn as I have on Facebook, as a matter of fact. Not that this puts me in Jay Z territory, exactly, but LinkedIn is a community of sorts and I enjoy participating in it.

I use Facebook mostly for personal purposes, keeping up with friends and family who are scattered across the country and overseas. My employees and I use it professionally as well, mostly via a company Facebook page and by sharing a subset of our content and press clippings when we think our Facebook friends might be interested. But LinkedIn is the primary professional social network for most of us, at least for now.

That may change sometime after Microsoft concludes its planned $26 billion purchase of LinkedIn.

This is not to say that I will immediately quit LinkedIn once Microsoft is its parent company. But I don’t enjoy doing business with Microsoft and it has been my longstanding goal to make my company Microsoft-free as soon as this becomes practical. I have to wait for a few specific professional applications, such as the tax preparation and portfolio management software we use, to become available in other formats. Our firm still uses Microsoft Office products as well, but those are more easily replaced once we go through a one-time conversion process. We do not use Microsoft server products at all, and I have no intention of our ever doing so. The development of cloud-based storage and services reduces the need almost to zero.

It is that same cloud that makes Microsoft so eager to regain its foothold in the small business market that it was willing to pay $26 billion for a second-tier social network that does not make any money. An internal memo from Staya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, hints that Nadella expects the professional social network to integrate with the company’s Office suite in a way that will allow the company to more directly compete with Google and Facebook.

The theory seems to be that I will use LinkedIn more, and be more eager to renew my subscription to Microsoft Office, if I can pull data from LinkedIn to populate documents I create in Excel or Word. Or maybe it’s that I will renew that subscription to Office if I can use LinkedIn to get better distribution of the stuff I create in Office (like this column, for example).

Good luck with that.

LinkedIn has had limited appeal because it is mostly a sales tool. Marketers try to get me to “connect” with them so they can direct more sales pitches my way. Most people feel no particular need to get more sales pitches, so they avoid LinkedIn or stop checking it regularly. As Bloomberg reported, there is a substantial and widening gap between LinkedIn’s membership and its active users in a given month. As of the beginning of this year, the social network’s active users hovered around 25 percent.

LinkedIn works best when it is used to direct specific inquiries to specific people who might be interested. People who might want to see my resume, for example, or whose resume I might want to see or forward to a business contact – hence LinkedIn’s popularity with both job-seekers and recruiters. People who might want to read content that I write, or whose content I might want to read because we work in the same field or in fields with overlapping interests. People who might want to meet me, or who I might want to meet because we address the same marketplace and might want to team up to do that in a better way.

LinkedIn is reasonably good at making these sorts of connections, though not good enough to make itself profitable. It isn’t obvious how it will improve by teaming up with a purveyor of operating systems, office software and cloud storage that, for the most part, people feel they need to buy in order to run the legacy (read: non-Apple and nonmobile) software that they must use for their business to function.

I think LinkedIn’s biggest problem is that I don’t use its mobile software, and I doubt many other users do either. These days about 80 percent of Facebook use is on mobile devices. I doubt that more than 20 percent of LinkedIn traffic comes from mobile platforms, despite its much touted (and little praised) app redesign late last year. Facebook is built to encourage rich content, like photos and video, well-suited to small screens. LinkedIn is not. Microsoft might change that in a skillful and powerful way, but it has not done much to make me believe that it will.

Recently I was invited to join a private Facebook group for content creators who want to share tips on producing and marketing their products. This is exactly the kind of group that LinkedIn would want to host – but it can’t boast anything like Facebook’s reach, and it currently offers no obvious advantages over Facebook’s ubiquitous platform. It is also much easier to integrate my personal and professional worlds when they overlap on Facebook.

Or on Google, which already hosts a lot of content for many of us, including our emails. Google Plus and its organizational “circles” have not really caught on in the personal space, which is occupied these days by Facebook for older folks and Instagram, Snapchat and heaven-knows-what for the youngsters. With YouTube and other products in its stable and a more robust profit stream from its content, I’d still bet on Google – or Facebook – to take over the business networking space before I would bet on Microsoft to find a profitable niche there. Not that it could never happen; I just doubt that it will.

Microsoft has never shown any skill at producing products people want to buy. It is just good at producing stuff that people have to buy, whether they like it or not. Nobody has to buy LinkedIn when there are so many social alternatives. I’m not counting on Microsoft to change that.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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