What can LinkedIn’s updates teach us about selling software?

The sign up page of Linkedin.com is seen in Singapore

With above 300 million professionals on the platform worldwide, browsing LinkedIn is now the default way for keeping tabs on people in your professional networks. In fact, many professionals spend more time managing their LinkedIn profile than keeping their CV up to date. Recently the social network added a range of new features to their premium subscription service. Peeling back the layers of the new offering reveals something interesting about how they are building their overall value proposition. It also tells us something about the software industry in general, and the model commonly referred to as Freemium.

AS with many software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, Linkedin employ a technique called “Freemium selling”. Put simply, they offer up basic features free of charge, and then promote additional, higher value features for a cost (usually a subscription fee). However, unless you are a recruiter or professional salesperson, the difference between a free and paid account was not clear. Recently though, LinkedIn has made some improvements to their premium accounts. These are mostly focused on increasing the visibility of the account holder, deeper analytics, and access to better search and communications tools.

For LinkedIn, converting members to the premium model isn’t their only revenue stream, but the recent updates suggest it is starting to become more important. It is likely that this most recent round of updates for its premium service is the start of a process that will widen the gap between the free service and the paid one. And looking at this progression tells us something about the Freemium model itself.

For software platforms that employ the ‘Freemium’ model, one of the most important questions that they must deal with is, “what will it take for someone to become a paying customer?” By default the platform promotes two sets of value propositions: the first focuses on getting customers to sign up, using the platform and providing enough value to “lock them in”; the second focuses on getting them to part with money for additional benefit. If the distinction between the two offers is not strong enough then the conversion rate will suffer and adjustments will need to made – as is the case with LinkedIn’s recent upgrades.

One of the difficulties in dealing with this problem is that the solution changes over time. Early adopters see value in the paid model and rapidly buy in. In LinkedIn’s case, this was primarily recruiters and sales professionals. But as this market segment approaches saturation point, new features must be developed to appeal to other, less obvious, audiences.

An important part of this process is ensuring that the platform doesn’t go stale. Ongoing innovation and incremental product releases ensure that users don’t start to suffer from interface fatigue. On the other hand, having too many changes or interface updates that are too big a jump can cause user backlash, as Facebook has had to deal with many times. There is a delicate balance that must be struck.

Overall the Freemium model is one that requires constant user analysis and ongoing innovation. As the term Software-as-a-Service suggests, customers are being delivered a service that must be managed and matured to ensure it remains relevant – and that requires constant attention to developments that drive both customer acquisition and the conversion of existing customers to the premium service.

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