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Two Worlds Colliding: How LinkedIn Could Take On Salesforce

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Editor’s note: Vik Singh is CEO of Infer.

Today’s B2B sales and marketing folks struggle with the overwhelming number of channels for finding and reaching new leads. The customer “funnel” continues to expand as buyers do more of their own research before raising their hand to connect with a sales rep. But imagine if you could make the funnel wider by identifying leads when they’re just browsing your site and haven’t yet filled out your “contact me” form, or leads who haven’t yet visited but are likely to be a good fit for your product?

That’s hard to do with the primitive tools that are available for sales and marketers today, unless you bring together some very rare assets — which just so happen to all exist at LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is the only company with fairly clean and accurate details on pretty much every contact that matters in the business world. Unfortunately, most other data providers’ contact info contains 80 percent garbage, and they can’t really improve it without violating CAN-SPAM laws. LinkedIn also reflects the direction sales is heading with strong channels for thought leadership. Via LinkedIn, you can educate and advocate for your customers versus just selling to them.

The Holy Grail of B2B Sales

Here’s a hypothetical scenario: What if you included some JavaScript from LinkedIn on your company’s website so that whenever a signed-in LinkedIn user visited your site, you could see who they were in LinkedIn Sales Navigator? Since the overwhelming majority of potential leads just browse and don’t fill in your forms, this would give you insight into a whole new population of potential customers that your Marketo and Salesforce systems can’t track. If LinkedIn offered a more sales or marketing automation-style interface, you could select, group or filter those web visitors and send them educational LinkedIn InMails or purchase targeted advertising on LinkedIn or in their LinkedIn email digests.

If we take this scenario a step further, marketers and salespeople could eventually use LinkedIn to reach new prospects who haven’t yet visited their sites. LinkedIn would know which types of users find your company interesting – especially if the company worked itself down the funnel towards Salesforce’s territory to offer CRM functions. By knowing the history of your leads (i.e. which ones end up converting to customers), LinkedIn could help you pinpoint your hottest prospects even before they hit one of your landing pages or contact forms.

While LinkedIn claims that Salesforce.com isn’t a competitor, it sure is running a course that brings it closer and closer to Salesforce’s bread-and-butter. LinkedIn’s recent acquisition of the Bizo marketing platform is a clear indication that the company is serious about taking on B2B marketing. A leaked document related to the acquisition details LinkedIn’s strategy to do this with an approach that builds upon its incredibly valuable social graph, online presence and other unique assets. And LinkedIn’s revamp of its Sales Navigator product is another sign that the company’s focusing more and more on building solutions for sales teams.

How LinkedIn Could Win in CRM

LinkedIn has an opportunity that none of today’s automation vendors can match. Even if Marketo and Salesforce joined forces, they’d be unable to give companies the true full-circle understanding of customers that LinkedIn could provide. That’s because LinkedIn has four unique assets that position it well to make a considerable run into this space (if it chooses to).

First of all, LinkedIn holds a treasure trove of data about companies and individuals. Whereas CRM and marketing automation systems start empty and you have to fill them up with contacts to campaign and prospect into, LinkedIn already has a pre-populated database. That’s why many sales teams leverage its Team Link tool to share networks across reps. This makes it easy to determine the right contacts, retrieve lead recommendations, and see updates on key people or companies. LinkedIn could add even more value for salespeople by automatically lighting up all the right prospects tailored for their business, and offering one-click actions so they could easily reach out to them with the best personalized offers.

LinkedIn also has its hooks in every part of the customer loop. As described in the scenario above, LinkedIn could help you generate net new revenue via insight into anonymous web visitors. It could eventually provide end-to-end sales and marketing analytics — from anonymous web visitors to converted customers — which would far outdo today’s marketing or sales automation reporting on just the sliver of people already in your funnel. That comprehensive insight could be used to score incoming leads and rank them within the LinkedIn experience.

In addition, LinkedIn is a hub for thought leadership.

LinkedIn provides a social network for promoting educational content in an organic, viral way that’s way more enticing than the blast emails we get from today’s marketing and sales automation systems. For example, LinkedIn’s Influencers feature has already attracted numerous successful business leaders like Richard Branson, Jack Welsh and Bill Gates. This kind of approach has tons of potential, especially for under-tapped sales and marketing opportunities around emerging trends or topics.

Finally, LinkedIn has a data-driven DNA and a great culture for smart products. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner knows first-hand how important data science is, and he hired one of the best data scientists I know – Deepak Agarwal. They understand that these techniques will also be crucial for redefining sales and marketing. In fact, the company has built an advanced lead scoring system that its sales team uses internally. It leverages data science, LinkedIn’s network graph, and numerous interesting company and profile signals to predict the best prospects for LinkedIn to sell its hiring solutions into. Although this system is heavily customized for LinkedIn’s internal corporate needs, it’s clear that the company has seen the future.

What Might Hold LinkedIn Back

With such assets, it’s a no-brainer to make a run into a $30 billion market, right? Well, not quite, because for LinkedIn to make this move, it must overcome significant challenges, including the innovator’s dilemma. The company already has a cash cow in its recruiting solutions and is loved by the public markets. But if you’re going to take on an existing market like CRM, you have to be very, very focused. That’s hard to do when you’re already making a lot of money from a totally different buyer. LinkedIn is a focused company, so it’s hard to see its leadership taking on the risk of spreading their focus too thin.

Another issue is the company’s consumer roots. Protecting users’ privacy is paramount for a company like LinkedIn, and this would get more challenging if it moved into the enterprise space. Salespeople and marketers would demand more data about LinkedIn users, and want more aggressive and effective methods for eliciting responses from them, but that would very likely run afoul with consumers’ expectations. Crossing over into the enterprise would mean longer sales cycles, more support, less profit, more engagement with partners and consulting firms, and a lot of pressure to do deeper reporting and analytics.

And while LinkedIn would probably prefer that we do all our work end-to-end in their experience, enterprise software is just messy. It has to interoperate with back-office applications for things like contracts, bookings, website analytics, customer support and ticketing, lead routing, territories, CRM triggers, etc. Even if LinkedIn had all these workflows and integrations (and the implementation partners and consultants to support them), it would be an uphill battle to take over existing sales and marketing workflows from within Salesforce and transfer those to the LinkedIn island.

Although the risks of moving into the sales and marketing space are high given the safeties LinkedIn enjoys today, the market is just too lucrative to ignore. I predict LinkedIn will incrementally chip away at pieces of marketing and sales automation over time rather than going all-in and calling out Salesforce. That said, I would love to see LinkedIn go on the offensive like Salesforce did against Siebel. It has the goods and is the most well positioned to pull off such a game-changing feat.

Featured Image: NASA (composite by Bryce Durbin)