Last week, LinkedIn announced that as of Jan. 31, it’s killing Answers, a section of the social network where a user could post a question on just about any subject and get answers from any other user who cared enough to reply. Note: I linked to Answers because today (1/21/2013) it’s still working, but it won’t as of Feb. 1.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a long-time supporter of LinkedIn, the social network that puts business first.
One of the most popular WordCount posts I ever wrote was on how writers can use LinkedIn – to find people to interview, keep track of sources, crowdsource for stories, keep up on trends, reach out to editors, and more.
There was a time a few years ago, before LinkedIn created its present LinkedIn for Journalists resource center that the company linked to that post and other posts I’ve done on how journalists and freelance writers can use the service. Some writer friends have called me the queen of LinkedIn, which I took as high praise.
All of that makes the news that LinkedIn is dumping Answers – and other changes the company has made in recent months – that much harder to take. With every remodel, LinkedIn is becoming a less valuable research tool for writers.
Just in case you think I’m just being cranky, here’s another post on why LinkedIn is blowing it by removing its best feature.
The New, Not So Improved LinkedIn
I should have suspected something was up when LinkedIn removed the Answers tab from the main navigation bar on its home page. Instead, you have to click on the More tab on the main nav bar to get a drop-down menu that shows Answers along with the Help Center, Skills & Expertise and Upgrade Your Account – not exactly the most popular LinkedIn features.
For me and for writers like me who used Linkedin for work, Answers is one of the features that set it apart from other social networks. We used the Answers feature to post queries for stories we were working on, or to look for subject matter experts who we could ask for an interview, either through LinkedIn or through their own websites. Answers was also good for keeping an ear to the ground for what people in an industry were talking about – a great way to pick up ideas for stories.
Getting rid of Answers is the latest step the Silicon Valley company has taken to remake itself as THE place for hiring someone or finding a job, or as someone put it recently, the world’s biggest resume service.
Today, LinkedIn makes slightly more than half its annual revenue from its Talent Solutions division, which sells software and related services to companies to help them find prospective candidates when they have jobs to fill, or to keep track of people they might want to hire when they have openings.
Back in October, I went to LinkedIn’s annual corporate user conference. For three days, I heard company executives talk about new features they’ve rolled out to help companies do a better job of tracking prospective employees. One of their objectives is to get rank and file users to “touch” the service more often, thereby creating more information – or datapoints – that buyers of its corporate recruiting software can use to find and track potential job candidates. One of these new features lets a LinkedIn subscriber “follow” a company or organization they’re interesting in knowing more about. Another is Endorsements, which lets you quickly “like” a person for a specific expertise or skill. Company headhunters can use the data to do things like follow someone back before contacting them about a job opening, or determine how well their recruiting efforts are doing.
LinkedIn’s push to get regular users to visit the site more often also explains the seemingly constant promotions that appear on the website encouraging users to beef up their profiles, add more connections, and endorse more of connections.
But for writers, take away Answers and you take away one of the more important reasons for visiting in the first place.
So what’s the alternative?
Alternatives to Answers – Inside LinkedIn
Though none are exactly the same, here are a few other ways to use LinkedIn for info you used to get from Answers:
1. Use your LinkedIn status updates to post queries.
Use the LinkedIn status update feature to post a question. Make sure you ID yourself as a reporter so if someone replies they know you’re looking for an interview. Your questions won’t go out to LinkedIn’s entire universe of 200 million users, but you will reach all the contacts in your own network. That’s probably as good a reason as any to take a few hours and beef up your Linkedin contacts.
2. Query select LinkedIn contacts.
It’s possible to sort your LinkedIn Connections by industry, geography or group, which you can use to ID people within your first-degree contacts who might be able to help on a story, and then craft one message and email it to all of them. Just like when you use the status update feature to post a query, make sure to flag a message as a query from a reporter so sources know right away what you’re looking for. I include something in the message subject line so there’s no doubt what I’m after, i.e., “Reporter Question” or “Reporter looking for companies that XXXX.”
3. Post a question in a LinkedIn Group.
I’ve found LinkedIn Groups for writers to be pretty worthless – the barrier for entry is way low, which means anyone can play, regardless of how much experience they have or don’t have. But Groups can be an excellent way to virtually meet people in an industry or topic you write about. The best groups are moderated, which means a group moderator has to accept your request to be included. Once inside, though, you can use the Group Discussion status update to post the same types of questions you could in Answers. You can also follow group members, which allows you to send them messages, which comes in handy for sending interview requests.
Alternatives to Answers – Outside LinkedIn
There are also a number of alternatives to Answers outside of LinkedIn:
1. Post a question on Twitter.
Back in the day, LinkedIn was the lion and Twitter was the mouse. Now, Twitter has 500 million active registered users v. LinkedIn’s 200 million. If you have a large enough following on Twitter – and that’s a big if – you can use Twitter to post questions just as you would have posted a question on LinkedIn Answers. If you don’t have a lot of followers, use a hashtag to pin a common keyword to your question, so when people search on that keyword your question will pop up. If it’s OK with the publication you’re writing the story for, you could include the publication’s Twitter handle in your question, which is another way of getting the question in front of more eyeballs.
2. Use PR-based crowdsourcing resources.
Use Help a Reporter Out, ProfNet, My StorySource or Source Sleuth to crowdsource, or send your query or question to lists of thousands of potential sources. I’ve written before about how to use HARO to get better query results. It’s worth noting, because of a couple recent instances of sources using HARO and similar services to dupe reporters, that you should always independently verify sources that you find through crowdsourcing services to make sure they are who they say they are.
3. Use other research tools.
Take advantage of a flood of web-based research tools and other services that are out there. An online tool called Spundge lets reporters compile material for stories their working on into online notebooks they can share with the public. A Portland-based startup called Little Bird uses a collection of search tools to uncover information on the topic of your choosing – I got a first-hand look at this recently and will be sharing more about it in an upcoming post. Use Blekko or another alternative to Google for doing searches online. ASU’s Reynolds Center is building a database of resources for business journalists.
LinkedIn’s recent changes make me nostalgic for what the service used to be, and none more than the passing of Answers. But resourceful writers will learn to adapt, using other means to find the information they’re after. That’s good for us, and bad for LinkedIn.