a pen with a LinkedIn logo
LinkedIn has a big opportunity with its Groups. Now it needs to act on it. PHOTO: Sheila Scarborough

LinkedIn sent a cryptic message to Group Admins on Jan. 14 announcing it was “making some changes to the LinkedIn Groups experience.” The three changes to the Groups community features were: the ability to post video, @mention members, and see Groups from your homepage and in the feed.

While this may be a first step towards improving LinkedIn’s Groups functionality, it’s already a slight misstep.

First, the changes are so minor and will do so little to help group admins that I wondered why the company even bothered announcing them.

Second, LinkedIn doesn’t hint at any larger meaning behind the announcement. As a result, it is missing an enormous opportunity. LinkedIn Groups have long been neglected, and that’s meant that many professionals who would have liked to have run and managed successful groups on the platform either went to Facebook to do so, built their own platforms, or started Groups and then abandoned them, leaving behind a wasteland of LinkedIn Group spam that provides value to no one.

Why should LinkedIn be paying attention? If Microsoft, LinkedIn’s owner, cares primarily about using the data available in LinkedIn, having robust Groups would be a massive contributor to this goal. Groups would provide rich conversational and network data for a host of Microsoft’s products, from the Dynamics 365 CRM to Outlook email to adding social learning to its Lynda.com education expansion.

For proof of this opportunity, we need look no further than Facebook. In the last seven months, we’ve watched Facebook put enormous emphasis behind its Groups functionality in order to improve the entire platform. At first, it left many scratching their heads as to why, but to me the most critical reason is that people’s attention was shifting to Groups (especially younger users), and so Facebook’s product — being ad-driven — must shift towards where the attention was already going. As more young people join the workforce, LinkedIn is sure to see the same shift, albeit more slowly than Facebook has.

Next Steps for LinkedIn and Groups

Right now, LinkedIn has the opportunity to make its Groups platform far better, to give millions of people the opportunity to build community, and to reap the rewards.

Here's what the company should do next:

1. Explain the larger vision and mission behind LinkedIn Groups to all users

With Microsoft steering the LinkedIn ship, this is all the more essential, as there is a lot of skepticism about Microsoft’s intentions here.

In the email I received, there’s no heart in the communication, no reason, not even an explanation why it is making this change now. Consumers of today are increasingly seeking out mission and mission-driven experiences, and LinkedIn is falling short in this category. Simply uniting people around its why would solve this problem.

2. Apologize to all the Group Admins its ignored for so long 

Many of my fellow community builders have tried building on LinkedIn and been sorely let down. It’s left a bad taste in their mouth. Many other LinkedIn users are spammed by Groups and have come to ignore them, which will only be exacerbated if it moves Group updates into people’s main feeds as promised.

In this apology, the company should take responsibility and lay out what’s changing. LinkedIn is a business platform, but that doesn’t mean its communications can’t be human. Those two are no longer in opposition.

3. Focus on creating tools that scale Groups leadership

Why is this so important? Like Facebook Groups, LinkedIn Groups will not be utilized primarily by experienced community builders. They’re generally using platforms where they can own their data. That means the fate of the product — being decentralized — lies in the hands of Group admins, who will look for best practices from LinkedIn itself. Training these people and building in-product experiences to make community building easier will be essential to LinkedIn’s success.

How should LinkedIn do this essential work? I once more turn to Facebook as an example: just do what Facebook Groups has been doing with the product turnaround. That is, take it back to beta with a subset of users, ask for help with humility, give back to top admins with conferences and workshops, and start releasing long-awaited features. These features would include better moderation capabilities, collaborative features and event calendars (Outlook integration, anyone?). The list would go on, with the help of top admins. Then break down the features that are useless. Repeat. Again and again.

An Opportunity for LinkedIn

Is it worth all this work for LinkedIn to invest in these Groups wholeheartedly and methodically?

In my experience, yes. This can be its competitive advantage against all other professional networks, especially as a new generation of users comes of working age and sees LinkedIn as stodgy and ripe for disruption.

In a LinkedIn environment with robust groups (for groups spanning from Dell alumni to consumer product founders in Seattle to female executives in tech), people will not only come to see LinkedIn as a place where they can find answers to hyper-specific questions quickly (just as with forums), but also where they can spend time and attention engaging with qualified peers, prospects and potential collaborators. If LinkedIn cares about data and ad networks, Groups would be a boon to these efforts.

LinkedIn seems to vaguely recognize the opportunity in its communication, but still doesn’t know how to handle the work ahead.

The platform is at a critical juncture, but I firmly believe it isn’t too late to save LinkedIn Groups. If the company doesn’t turn it around with proper humility, it could end up with a Google Plus situation: it will become the running joke of the community platform world.