The metaphor test

I was talking the other day with someone who works at LinkedIn about the direction the company wants to take its product and brand. She articulated a few interesting metaphors (paraphrased) to describe the gap between where they are today and where they want to go:

“Right now we’re kind of like an insurance product, something people have as a ‘check the box’ kind of thing and don’t really turn to until they’re looking for a job. We want to be a lot more than just a glance in the rearview mirror of your career. We want to be a place of opportunity, knowledge, and insight; a place to celebrate professional achievements; a place to be inspired by and engage with people who are passionate about the same things you are. In today’s world, you need to think about your career as a lifelong beta test. And we want to be your partner at each step of that journey.”

I’m always fascinated by the language people use to talk about their product and the metaphors they employ, in particular. The latter is often a good barometer of two things: 1) how well a company understands the job that users are hiring its product to do, and 2) the strength of its vision for the future.

To take the example above, it’s evident the team has a keen understanding of how people perceive LinkedIn today. The association with an insurance product isn’t ideal—by definition, insurance is a safeguard against bad outcomes. I‘m guessing most people don’t relish spending time on LinkedIn; their profile is something they feel compelled to keep up.

The analogy to a “glance in the rearview mirror” highlights the reactive mentality many users have towards the product: finished an internship –> update my profile; closed a deal –> update my profile; group just got downsized –> really need to update my profile. By and large, external events are what prompt engagement as opposed to a proactive pull towards the platform. Initiatives like LinkedIn Today and the Influencers program are attempts to start this shift.

I think the company is still figuring out the much harder challenge of what it wants to be going forward. While “a place of opportunity, knowledge, and insight” feels too broad to be actionable, the idea of being a co-experimenter as people continually beta test their careers has legs.

A metaphor brainstorm is a good test of your user empathy and storytelling skills. When you find something that resonates, it’ll be valuable not just in a marketing context, but also as a way to motivate your team and bring them along on the journey towards a longer-term vision.