Inside LinkedIn’s ‘Open for Business’ Listening Session

Last week I visited LinkedIn‘s Silicon Valley headquarters to attend a launch session for a new product the B2B social network hopes will drive more value for SMBs on its platform.

It’s unclear how my name was drawn from among the 10 million U.S. SMBs with profiles on LinkedIn. My location certainly had something to do with it. I could jump in my car and be there in 90 minutes. This can’t be said for most SMBs.

So what is LinkedIn up to? It’s rolling out something called Open for Business (Wonder if AMEX will cry foul?). Open for Business seems to be LinkedIn’s effort to do a better job of helping the millions of SMBs with LinkedIn profiles get exposed to more potential customers.

What LinkedIn has done is add a section underneath your profile where you can select from 14 business categories. Some examples: “accounting”, “software development”,  “photography”, “home improvement”. Notably, the last two are very much local business categories, while many of the other 14 could be considered location-independent “white collar” professions.

I think the mix of the 14 categories is interesting and I am sure, based on my conversations with LinkedIn engineers at the event, that the number and breadth of categories will increase and broaden as the product unfolds.

Once you select a business category — at this point you can only pick one — you can select a number of underlying services.

A photographer, for example, can select up to five services including event photography, portrait photography, and commercial photography. In my case, I found the categories and underlying services too constraining to tell my story.

If I choose “consulting”, I cannot include public speaking as one of my services. And if I choose “coaching and mentoring”, where I can select public speaking, then I cannot choose “consulting”.

Not surprisingly, the engineers and product people at the event were taking copious notes on the feedback they were getting about the categories and services structure they laid out for us. Getting this right is complicated and critically important.

LinkedIn expects the payoff for SMBs to come from searches filtered based on the “services” tag. Presumably, if someone searches in LinkedIn for a public speaker, my name will appear since that is one of the services under my category of coaching and mentoring.

The engineer who was sitting at our table leads ProFinder — LinkedIn’s marketplace platform. He explained that these two initiatives are connected, and they will send qualified leads to Pros whose expertise matches the submitted requests. What’s interesting is that they are using the same category and service structure as they do for Open for Business. This should bring the two products into alignment and better serve both the searchers and the SMBs and service providers.

On a personal note, as I continue to push forward on my ThinkLikeAnApp initiative, I am told by many mentors and colleagues that ramping up my use of LinkedIn will have a demonstrable payoff. It was well worth the drive to Mountain View yesterday to see where LinkedIn is pushing its resources to do a better job of helping the millions of SMBs and small service providers who have profiles on its platform. Besides, everyone can use a 26 ounce Swell.

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