Solving your problem, not your customer’s: LinkedIn’s University Pages

I admire LinkedIn. I’ve known about them since very early in their history, when I was doing enterprise social networking and LinkedIn was the professional alternative to Friendster. But their recently announced University Pages are going to be a bust because they’re designed to solve LinkedIn’s business model problems, not problems that universities or students have.

LinkedIn needs inventory: lots of updated, comprehensive profiles of the kinds of people recruiters, employers and advertisers want to reach. The vast majority of LinkedIn’s inventory is college-educated, higher income, mid-career professionals. LinkedIn skews older and wants to get a younger demographic; besides that, getting college grads as they start their careers hooked on LinkedIn ensures that they’ll “grow into” more valuable inventory.

Seen in this light, University Pages are LinkedIn’s latest crack at getting a younger demographic–not just college age but college-bound–into their inventory. (Their first, which was smart but incremental, was creating more space on LinkedIn profiles for university-specific content.) But what’s the value proposition for universities and students? What problems do the pages solve? From their announcement:

We believe University Pages will be especially valuable for students making their first, big decision about where to attend college.

This value proposition depends on the University Pages becoming a place where prospective students will find information that’s more valuable, more easily than elsewhere (the way LinkedIn is valuable and easy for recruiters and professionals), and allowing universities to do a better job communicating with prospects. Here’s why that’s not the case:

  • Who is the customer? LinkedIn’s core business has two types of customers: profile owners, like me, who create a LinkedIn profile for professional networking and the value of a “clean,” public profile of record, and the recruiters, employers and advertisers who pay to reach the profiles of people like me. Who is the customer for University Pages? I’ll deal with the student side of the equation below, but at colleges who gains from the new pages? Is it admissions, marketing, career services or someone else? These are generally specific, siloed functions with different goals and methods.
  • Another headache for colleges: The pages are a new, non-owned outlet that have to be updated and maintained. Hence, another content marketing channel to compete with admissions marketing, university communications, existing social media channels, and more. Higher ed communications and social media people are already overtaxed, and even early beta testers seem underwhelmed. (The reaction on Twitter was even less charitable.)
  • Not differentiated enough. There are dozens and dozens of places for high school students to learn about colleges, from the purely statistical, to the analytical, to the anecdotal. And what about Facebook Pages? The main differentiator LinkedIn’s University Pages tout is the ability to see the careers and outcomes of university grads to help high school students see a viable career path. Yet aside from a data problem–LinkedIn doesn’t have enough information about every graduate at every school to truly map individual career goals–high school students just aren’t focused that narrowly on a career. According to the most recent HERI survey of incoming freshman, just about 25% expect to be in the kind of professional or STEM-related careers where LinkedIn has depth and strength. Approximately 50% of incoming freshman are focused on outcomes that are poorly represented by LinkedIn’s inventory of profiles, like teaching and health professions and the balance–another 25%–are undecided, “other” or expecting unemployment when they graduate. And that’s after they have gotten into college! Choosing colleges based on narrow career outcomes is extremely limited and specific.
  • Little bang for the buck. What does a high school student get in return for creating a LinkedIn profile? The chance to engage with the University Page and other LinkedIn members. Is that valuable enough for a high-schooler to fill out an online resume that was designed for professionals? Compare that payoff to a site like Zinch, which offers students the chance to qualify for scholarships in return for creating a profile that’s scarily detailed and specific, but was designed for a high school kid. And what about the university? What’s the payoff for maintaining the University Page? It’s tough to see. Ideally, interested students would be compelling leads for the admissions funnel. Yet the pages haven’t been built to feed into an admissions and enrollment process.
  • It misses the point. LinkedIn is supposed to be all about jobs and professional networking. Getting a job after college is the #1 thing that students care about. So why isn’t LinkedIn, via its University Pages or some other product, leveraging its incredibly valuable business to deliver jobs to students? Instead, it’s entering a crowded field–college selection–with an underpowered offering.

I am confident that LinkedIn is going to get a lot of high school students signed up via the new University Pages initiative, and they’ll report rapid growth (from a small base). But that’s because there is a category of privileged, ambitious students who will opt-in to LinkedIn because they know that they should explore every avenue for admission to a competitive college. To me, that’s a failure of imagination and ambition by LinkedIn, because every high school and college student needs help with their educational and professional outcomes. By launching a product that simply imports it playbook from the professional world into the educational one, LinkedIn is missing the chance to really change young people’s lives for the better.

Colleges and universities need solutions that meet them where they are. That’s what we learned with Merit, which leverages the great things that universities already do while recognizing the challenges that students face in presenting a new, professional public face to the world. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to get the 500 colleges and 1.5 million students with Merit pages the attention they deserve, whether it’s in Facebook, local media, or even LinkedIn–just not with their disappointing University Pages.