LinkedIn has ambitious plans to build a B2B marketing platform and become a $1bn business by 2017, according to leaked internal documents.

Apparently, it wants to “build an integrated marketing and sales platform,” and become “the most effective online platform for marketers to engage with professionals.”

While LinkedIn publicly claims it doesn’t want to compete with Salesforce, the leaked documents suggest otherwise. As does LinkedIn’s recent acquisition of the Bizo marketing platform. The acquisition of Bizo “accelerates efforts to provide the most effective platform to reach audiences, nurture prospects and acquire customers.” In addition, LinkedIn recently revamped its Sales Navigator product as a stand-alone product, offering a customized way for sales professionals to connect with qualified buyers.

Can LinkedIn take on the likes of Salesforce?

Functionality

In terms of functionality, LinkedIn is far away from being a comprehensive Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform. To seriously enter this market it would need to invest huge amounts of resources.

B2B sales and marketing is a big area, and LinkedIn does not have the luxury of picking off a niche to focus on (for example, a real estate vertical). To provide a complete solution you need software that covers sales/contact management, marketing automation, customer service and content management.

Different businesses approach sales and marketing in different ways according to factors like sector, the age of the business and management style. For example, some have aggressive sales models, whereas others are focused on relationship management.

CRM software has to be flexible to different workflows and integrate with a wide range of back-office applications. It would be very difficult to take the place of companies’ existing CRM systems and transfer those workflows to LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is not a software company. It’s a media company and its culture is completely different. It has focused on growing the membership of its professional social network online and becoming an enterprise class recruitment platform. LinkedIn has not had to think about software functionality before.

This could prove a major stumbling block for the company, especially without partners to support them. While LinkedIn has commercial partnerships with Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics, it has refused to enter into partnerships with smaller CRM companies.

In contrast, Salesforce has an extensive partner network of third party software providers that deliver the functionality required by many diverse groups of customers – it’s extremely adaptable to different businesses’ needs, and has evolved into a general application platform.

SalesSeek also offers a broad range of functionality. However, unlike Salesforce and more complex CRMs, the SalesSeek platform does not require expensive consultants for basic setup. Instead, easy to use settings enable it to be customized to each customer’s situation, but very much focused on the revenue generation process.

We believe one set of functionality won’t be enough to keep sales people happy. Sales people conduct a lot of business offline and won’t want to change the way they work and switch to doing everything online. Companies also want to be in control of contacts, so the idea that LinkedIn would have power over these is unlikely. LinkedIn would need to allow data to be transferred to companies’ proprietary systems.

Lead generation

As the world’s largest online professional network with more than 332 million members worldwide, LinkedIn holds an enormous amount of data about companies and individuals. This is a major advantage over traditional CRM systems where you have to source and add your own contact information. Data is key to lead generation. LinkedIn is already used by sales people to find new prospects and this area could be developed to allow buyers to post their requirements and help sales people identify leads from those likely to be interested in their product.

LinkedIn is primarily a self-administered address book, and a social network for business people to discuss ideas and find new employment opportunities. It is not a platform for direct selling. While people are flattered by unsolicited job offers, they would quickly become irritated by unwanted product offers.

Online networks can shrink as fast as they grow, and LinkedIn’s membership is a very fragile asset. Members are free to leave at anytime, and will do so if they feel their privacy is being compromised, or if they are being spammed by sales people. LinkedIn needs to tread very carefully when it comes to selling members’ data and find a strategy for selling qualified leads.

LinkedIn aren’t the only business social network with valuable data – there are rumors that Facebook is building a network for professionals to connect and collaborate on work-related documents.

One size fits all – but only if it’s shapeless…

LinkedIn could take a lowest common denominator approach to sales and marketing, offering a basic online platform with limited functionality.

While recent activity points towards LinkedIn becoming a software provider, it faces significant challenges and risks if it takes on the likes of Salesforce. With roots as a media company it’s likely to struggle.

Image: Linkedin – Youtube