I’ve been watching the numbers growing on the professional networks that live within Facebook for a while now. It’s something I’ve been monitoring to see how they are taking off and growing.Like a lot of people, I signed up for BranchOut in the early days. I wanted to see what this new network was all about. I’ve done the same with Monsters BeKnown and Indeed. Branchout got a lot of bad press in the blogosphere in the early days around posting on walls, pointless quizzes and what many regarded as spamming.I spoke to BranchOut founder Rick Marini about this at #truSanFran. Marini was hosting us in his new office, and this gave us access to the team. It’s been interesting to see how his vision has evolved in a short space of time.

Marini outlined some ambitious plans. He outlined how in the early days it was important to make noise and gain a critical mass. This was achieved by the wall postings and other initiatives, but once you get users, it’s important that you listen to them. The functions were also fairly limited in those days, with no real potential for doing anything other than making connections, posting jobs and issuing/receiving recommendations. This was also around the time that LinkedIn took a very public stand against what was being positioned as a competitor network, and pulled access to the A.P.I. Monster had also recently launched BeKnown, who with global reach and the Monster network are a credible competitor in the same space.

BranchOut had also attracted significant investment totalling $24Mn, and were using this investment to assemble a significant product team with creative licence to look at what the users were saying, how they were using the platform and the constant change that was going on where they lived within Facebook. Notably BranchOut were one of the companies involved in working with Facebook to develop mobile and other applications, building the first mobile app on Facebook. The features the users didn’t like were dropped, and the interface was changed to make it easier for users. It’s now very easy to navigate the platform from one screen.The mobile app was built by an engineer in their spare time and now represents 40% of their total traffic. A number that is expected to grow to over 50% by the half-year, proof again of that mobile is critical.

The feature I’ve always liked is being able to see how you are connected in any company, and who your connections are connected with. It’s useful because you can message within the platform without needing to send messages in what many view as a personal space. It’s also a great way to gather names when sourcing. Connecting has proved to be quite easy. Without a lot of effort I have 1,472 connections, which represents about 40% of my Facebook network. With each connection added to my BranchOut network, I gain access to the professional details of their friends, searchable by connections or employing companies even if they don’t have a BranchOut profile.

When you log in to BranchOut, you get some prompt boxes to update your profile where it is needed, and most notably a very simple to use feature for inviting your Facebook friends to connect with you on the platform, which filters which friends do not already have a profile, and a one click invite in batches of 50. Judging by the growth in numbers, it seems to be working well.

The home page has an update box to share news, accomplishments, events etc with your BranchOut network, with the option to post to Facebook and Twitter. Other tabs enable you to share links, give endorsements and post jobs. Posting jobs are a 2 screen job title and job description. This is free to post, share with your contacts and is searchable by anyone in Branchout.

An enhanced job listing allows a lot more customisation and like all of the platform, is very simple to use from a single screen. The enhanced features allow for Job Title, (with the option to post a catchy headline), Company, Location inside and outside of the U.S, a job description with pasting options, job type by industry,experience and tenure and the facility to add perks. Application is either by one click-through BranchOut with the personal profile, which I think is a great feature, making application quick, easy and also simple by mobile, or by external website or ATS. The latter will no doubt cause a drop off, my recommendation would always be for the one click, staying in a Facebook environment that all the data I’ve seen proves to be important. You can post anonymously or by name, add a unique reference number and there’s even a tick box for adding a commitment to consider US Veterans. This last feature I’d like to be extended to incorporate UK military veterans, and others from the global audience, with over 50% of the 10Million registered users residing out of the U.S. Enhanced jobs are priced at $49 for one job, $225 for 5 jobs, $390 for ten jobs and the option to request for multiple jobs and an automated job feed.

The main screen has four tabs that are easy to navigate. Search people by name, company or job. Each person displays a photo for recognition, a professional headline taken from the profile and icons for companies in their professional network. Search companies by name, people or jobs. When you click on a company you get to see your inside connections by icon for easy recognition, jobs posted by the company on BranchOut and other matching jobs. Search jobs by company and people. Theres also a keyword search that enables users to search by keywords, company, location, industries, experience and tenure. Like all of the platform it is very easy to navigate, and users can save the job for later review or click-through to a single page spec, which has an additional Facebook share option. The users inside connections are featured at the top of the job with the option to request an intro through your connections with a custom message field, encouraging referral and building on the benefits of networking. You can apply direct with your profile which is quick and simple (unless the hiring manager has chosen to push you through an ATS or external site), save the job, share on your own wall or on twitter, and see other jobs. The single page view, connections, apply and other features makes it really jobseeker friendly.The last tab allows for growing your network with the features listed earlier in the post.

Profiles are quick to build and edit, including sections for professional headline, picture, (your Facebook picture is the default setting or you can upload any image), a free text summary not restricted by characters with the option to upload and add your resume, tabs showing your connections, updates, projects that you can add at any time as an update, and endorsements. Endorsements are easy to give, receive and request.You can see my profile at branchout.com/Bill.Boorman

Lastly there’s a message icon that shows any open messages with a pull down menu that shows connections, message requests and notifications. Having gone back and had a good look round, I’ve got to say I’m impressed with the ease of navigation and the user features. I can see why jobseekers and employers like it.Another feature worth noting is the integration with job board CareerBuilder in the U.S, and most recently TotalJobs in the UK and Stepstone in Europe. The job board integration brings extra social features to the boards and enables advertisers to get extra coverage and reach through BranchOut. Monster offers the same benefits through Beknown, with the added feature I really like of being able to endorse and search skills, which is perhaps the main differentiator in functions between the two platforms, though BranchOut would appear to be winning the war for monthly active users. According to a recent Techcrunch article, BranchOut has experienced significant growth during 2012, with AppData recording 1Mn at the end of 2011, rising to 2.7Mn by the end of Jan, and a massive 5.5Mn by the end of Feb.

Marini identifies three factors as being behind this growth. 

Image Source: TechCrunch

1:A dedicated growth team

Marini hired a  team who work on pro-actively building the numbers by focussing on analytics,new design,registration flow,A/B testing and viral techniques. A great example of this is the simple, one click fifty friend invites.

2: The launch of the mobile app.

This added the ability to invite friends to connect by mobile increased the number of daily active users by 100% from 260,000 to 560,000 in just 3 days, according to app growth tracking service AppData.

3: Getting to critical mass first.

BranchOut describe this as the tipping point where the volume of new users multiply exponentially. , The new users in turn invite their connections leads to viral growth, hence the almost unprecedented hike in monthly user numbers.When potential users start getting multiple invites from trusted connections it validates the platform, and persuades people that they need to go and have a look at what is going on. Branchout is now is signing up 3 users per second, and was the 4th fastest growing app on Facebook this week ahead of Spotify and Pinterest. You have to say that’s impressive, and a long way from the early wall posting days, in a relatively short space of time.

I would also put this down to the simplicity of navigation and the look of the site, as well as the mobile factor. The Facebook market is big enough to support both BeKnown and BranchOut, give both platforms a place. I’m not sure Indeed will have the backing to compete with these two giants, and BraveNewTalent offers a completely different option with the development of the talented network, built around skills communities. The winners here being Facebook, who are now able to boast credible career options to give people even more reason to stay in the channel, and the job seekers.

BranchOut are now looking at ways to fully monetize the platform. As with any platform of this type, the first goal is always to get the user numbers. Now they are achieving that, increased advertising revenues can be expected, and last year they launched a premium recruiter connect product with enhanced features and search capability. I will be reviewing this in a later post. I will be watching with interest how the platform stands up with the significant growth of users. This will be the real test, as no one could have predicted the speed at which these milestones have been achieved. Judging by whats happened since the 2010 launch, Marini probably already has this figured out. Good luck to them, and hats off for a job well done!