LinkedIn may be best known as a place for users to swap furtive notes with recruiters and spy on former colleagues.
But Jeff Weiner, chief executive of the professional social network, has loftier ambitions of conceptualising the site as an “economic graph”.
He wants to digitally map the global economy with online profiles for every worker, pages for each company, listings for all the vacancies in the world and even recording the skills required for the available jobs.
But the past few weeks have shown that the professional social network is not simply an economy-watcher, tracking changes from the sidelines. Instead, its fortunes may be more dependent on the jobs market than analysts had anticipated, as 62 per cent of LinkedIn’s revenues come from recruiters.
Shares have fallen more than 40 per cent since Steven Sordello, the company’s chief financial officer, warned about slowing growth at the so-called “talent solutions business”, which sells subscriptions to companies hunting for potential hires.
The stock dropped at a tough time for social media companies, but while Twitter and Facebook have recovered much of their losses, LinkedIn has not.
Mr Sordello said sales to large enterprise customers were set to grow in the mid-20 per cent in 2016, down from about 30 per cent year-on-year growth in 2015.
“We’re not really forecasting a significant downturn but clearly Asia-Pacific and Europe, Middle East and Africa exited weaker, so we’re factoring that into the guidance,” he told analysts on a recent earnings call.
Online sales to smaller businesses are also set to slow, LinkedIn said, from 30 per cent year-on-year in 2015 to “single digits” in 2016.
The company is confident that Talent Solutions will succeed. But the lowered outlook prompted many analysts to rethink not only their assessment of LinkedIn’s dependence on global economic health but more broadly, how large the Silicon Valley company could become in the longer term.
Nine out of 44 analysts that cover the company have downgraded it in the weeks following the earnings call, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, with the average 12-month target price falling 23 per cent to $175.26.
Morgan Stanley downgraded LinkedIn from “overweight” to “equalweight” last week, saying it now believes it will be a “materially smaller platform than we previously thought”.
Brian Nowak, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, is particularly concerned about the slowdown in acquiring large enterprise customers. He estimates that growth in the number of big business buyers was down to 16 per cent in 2015, from 32 per cent the year before, and he lowered his predictions to an increase of just 10 per cent in the year.
At JPMorgan, analyst Doug Anmuth says he is also concerned. “We believe global macro volatility could weigh on overall hiring trends, particularly among small businesses, where LinkedIn’s offering is still a work-in-progress,” he says.
LinkedIn says it is switching its focus from acquiring new large customers to trying to get a larger chunk of their recruitment business. To do this, it is revamping its main recruiter product to make it easier to use for hiring managers, not just specialist recruiters at home with complex boolean search strings.
The company says the largest chunk of recurring revenue comes from growing how much each business spends.
“We’ve had a strategy focusing on total customer growth and growing share of wallet for several years; as the business has gotten larger, the emphasis has naturally shifted over the past few years to the latter,” it says.
LinkedIn has also created new side products such as Referrals, to help employers encourage their staff to refer qualified candidates for vacancies through the network.
The worries about LinkedIn’s recruitment business are compounded by changes in its marketing arm. Analysts fear the company is overshadowed by Google and Facebook, which dominate digital advertising. LinkedIn received just 1 per cent of US digital ad revenues in 2015 compared with 41 per cent for Google and 13.5 per cent for Facebook, according to data from eMarketer, the research firm.
The business of selling ads on the LinkedIn app and site contributes about 20 per cent of LinkedIn’s total revenues (the balance is made up of premium subscriptions sold to members).
The company also had bad news in February about this division, announcing it would abandon an advertising product that it launched following its acquisition of Bizo, a business-to-business marketing platform, last year. Lead Accelerator was meant to help attract B2B marketers but it is now being rolled into LinkedIn’s main ad slot, Sponsored Content.
Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at eMarketer, says advertisers have “mixed opinions” on how effective LinkedIn is as an advertising platform.
In a research report comparing all the major social platforms, advertisers gave LinkedIn grades ranging from B to C, praising its ad targeting and professional audience but marking it down for creative capabilities, user engagement and price. EMarketer forecasts advertising revenue at LinkedIn to slow from 35 per cent in 2015 to just 9.5 per cent this year.
Trip Chowdhry, an analyst at Global Equities Research, says part of the problem is that users do not feel at home on LinkedIn, where their every move can be seen by superiors and juniors in the workplace and marketers do not want to reach them where they are not at home. This could also have an impact on how much people search for a job on LinkedIn, rather than, for example, going to more honest appraisals of workplaces on the site Glassdoor, he says.
“On Facebook, you can say negative things about a friend, about anything in life. On LinkedIn, you can’t because it will hurt you professionally,” says Mr Chowdhry. “It is a site with zero credibility.”