Are you Building an Everyday App? (the LinkedIn problem)

LinkedIn wants its ~40 million users to come back every day. Problem is, LinkedIn isn’t an everyday app.

In a recent interview, LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman describes moving away from day to day to a more strategic role in the company he founded:

I want to be able to sink my mind around a couple of problems and work through them. For example, many professionals still don’t understand how LinkedIn can be valuable on a daily or weekly basis”

Another way you could phrase this is: “people don’t use LinkedIn everyday…we need to figure out how to change that”.

The fact is that LinkedIn, in its current incarnation, is not an everyday app. An everyday app is one that is used every day (or most days) by its users. This means that each and every day they do something with the app. Maybe they’re communicating with coworkers, or creating wireframes, or sharing what they ate for breakfast. Everyday apps in theory are as plentiful as bees in a blossoming apple tree. In practice, however, everyday apps are exceedingly rare.

(my friend Dave Lifson says that the folks at Amazon call returning to the site daily the “daily habit”)

So how many everyday apps are there? Well, it’s hard to tell, but probably not many. Check out the following slide from a study of teens and technology done by MTV Asia (hat tip: M. Arauz).

Regular Visits (# of sites visited regularly)

This study suggests that teens in the U.S. only visit 7 sites regularly, while the numbers in other countries aren’t much higher. That’s not many!

In general, most people think they’re building an everyday app, but they’re not. When the actual use patterns are discovered, most apps will be used every few days or less. Designers have to ask themselves a very hard question: “How often are people really going to use our web application?”. The answer is important…it will even help drive design decisions. Whether or not you have an everyday app affects the entire design of what you’re building, including the screens, notifications, and frequency of the service. For example, only everyday apps really need to use real-time technology to update streams. If you find out that you’re not building an everyday app, you probably don’t need to invest in making it real-time. But…you might invest in a notifications system that can alert users to when something very interesting happens.

You don’t have to be an everyday app to be successful. Netflix, for example, is not an everyday app. It’s an every-few-days app. Most people go back every few days to update their queue. There is really no need to go back more often. Another example is Freshbooks, which is not an everyday app for independents (it’s probably an everyday app for companies with a dedicated finance person). As an independent, you only use Freshbooks when you need to send an invoice or send estimates. But, Freshbooks did realize that if they added time tracking, then it became an everyday app…

Falsely believing that one has an everyday app is partially why advertising has failed to support so many entrepreneurs who envisioned financing their app that way. When people do the math and try to figure out how much engagement they’ll need to make a profit off the ads run on their site, they too often assume that they’re building an everyday app. They calculate the number of users times the number of days, when in fact they should be calculating a fraction of that. When it becomes clear that people aren’t using their app everyday, their advertising strategy falls to the ground…hard.

LinkedIn is not used every day by most of the people who use it. Many of the 38 million registered users use it infrequently. Personally, I only use it to respond to requests for connections or some other email notification I receive (sad but true). Other than pruning it as a weak-ties network, LinkedIn really isn’t that useful for me. A lot of folks I’ve talked to share this sentiment…it’s basically used as a souped-up contacts manager.

Now, there may be a subset of folks who use LinkedIn everyday, like people looking for a job or headhunters trying to find good candidates. But once people find a job they stop using it so much. They then become like the majority of professionals who have jobs (even in this economy) and don’t have time to actively look for new opportunities.

So contrast engagement on LinkedIn with the crazy engagement of Twitter and Facebook. Those sites are just waiting in the wings to start eating LinkedIn’s lunch. And they already might be. Most of the folks I talk with on Twitter are using it for professional purposes in one way or another…purposes which LinkedIn could in theory be well-positioned to help out on.

I’ve long wondered about this problem with LinkedIn. How can they increase engagement when they are often used (for better or worse) as a job hunting application? I think its an interesting problem because they certainly have enough users to play with…it’s just a matter of finding out what features can be valuable enough to get those folks coming more often.

Here are a couple thoughts:

  • LinkedIn seems to weigh social value over personal value. They focus on connecting people more than providing value regardless of connection. I will say that their Answers feature is one good exception to this, but in general the messaging I get from LinkedIn is all about who is connected to whom. The emails in particular make me cringe…I don’t care who my contacts are connected to unless I know how that other person can benefit me. My Inbox and network updates are filled with connection information…as if I want to spend time managing this stuff.
  • To be the world’s best professional app you need to make people better at their profession! This is straight out of Kathy Sierra’s School of Passionate Use. The best way to make people passionate about your business is to make them better at what they’re already passionate about. In other words, users will get passionate about LinkedIn if LinkedIn can help them do their work better. Now, LinkedIn knows what I do because I’ve told them. Why isn’t their goal to make me a better freelance consultant/interface designer? Give me some tools to do my business better, give me great content that helps me do my work better. There are places to find great content around this…it’s just a matter of curating it and publishing it.

Now, it’s possible that LinkedIn shouldn’t be an everyday app but I doubt that is the case. People are busy being professionals every day so why couldn’t an app that makes them be better professionals be a part of that? But at the present moment it still feels like LinkedIn is too focused on the connection part and not enough on the profession part.

Until LinkedIn can make us better at our profession, it won’t be an everyday app.

Published: May 7th, 2009