Facebook Users Want Professional Networking: BranchOut Nears a Million New Users Within a Week

After six months of testing different gamification and viral mechanics, professional social networking Facebook app BranchOut seems to have found the right design. It grew its monthly active user count from 275,543 to 817,367 in a week, according to our AppData tracking service, with its daily active user count also rapidly growing to 163,578 today. Growth exploded as soon as the company pulled its arguably spammy question battles feature from its home page and replaced it with relevant job listings.

The unusually big spurt for a professional networking app, which the company says has come without any marketing growth, indicates that Facebook users want professional social networking. They just apparently hadn’t been given a tool that met their needs. This bodes well for other Facebook recruiting tools including Identified and Work4 Labs.

We spoke with BranchOut founder Rick Marini about how focusing on the core value additions — job listings and helping users get job referrals — brought his app more virality than any affectedly viral mechanic.

BranchOut launched in August 2010 as a simple app that showed users where their friends worked and allowed them to connect with friends to see employment of second-degree contacts. Traffic peaked at 68,000 DAU but quickly flattened to around 15,000.

The company has since experimented with new features designed to get users to post to friends’ walls and draw them to the site. The main one had been ‘battles’ that asked “Who is most likely to get to work early and leave late?” then posted the response to the walls of friends. But the professionally-oriented value proposition got lost and the app bottomed at roughly 5,000 DAU. We were surprised to hear in May that despite the low traction, BranchOut had secured a $18 million second round of funding from Redpoint Ventures, Accel Partners, Norwest Venture Partners, and Floodgate, on top of a previous $6 million first round. At that point, the company still hadn’t answered a long-standing question among developers, which was whether people wanted to go beyond social networking with their real-life friends on the site.

Value Begets Virality

The answer is that it was BranchOut’s design, not user interest, that was the problem. At the time of the funding we recommended that BranchOut scrap the gimmicks and instead make the app truly valuable to users. BranchOut has done just that. Now, the company is planning a competitor to LinkedIn’s premium applicant search product Recruiter, filling out its database ahead of what Marini says is a launch planned for early August.

“We took your advice, pulled battles off the dashboard, and [now] we’re trying to focus on core product add value to user by showing them jobs they might like or companies they’re connected to” said Marini. “We’re not spending any money on marketing, before or now. There was already demand there, and now have proof this is something people want to do on Facebook. If it can grow at this rate, our data will become quite interesting to both users and our enterprise clients.”

Along with displaying local job listings instead of battles, BranchOut simplified its messaging around encouraging users to invite friends. It replaced the weak “Recommended Friends & Colleagues” headline with the call to action “Expand Your Network”. Marini tells us that now 70% of new users are coming from these invites, instead of the less relevant battle questions.

BranchOut’s success may indicate the opportunity is bigger than previously thought. Work4 Labs might see more users clicking through to the job listing tab applications it licenses to the Pages of big companies. The fledging Facebook-based professional network Identified might be able to gain traction by following BranchOut’s suit, dropping its own battles product, and making recommended companies and its inviter more prominent.

Scaling, Challenging LinkedIn’s Enterprise Product

Currently the company is racing to scale in order to meet demand. “You don’t typically build in for such growth. So far we’ve held up pretty well. Our servers were down [Wednesday] for just an hour. With this kind of pressure that isn’t too bad.

Next, the company will prepare for the August 1st release of its premium enterprise recruiting search tool. Because it brings in employment and location data from Facebook, which users update frequently, it could challenge or at least complement LinkedIn’s premium service, which costs around $7,000 a year. Suddenly, $24 million in funding doesn’t sound so bubbly.

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