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BranchOut Bathes In Reflected Glory Of LinkedIn

By embedding its service in Facebook, the professional network hopes to tap a broader social network.

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With LinkedIn stock rocketing to more than double its asking price, BranchOut hopes to draft along in its wake, with Facebook providing the booster rockets.

"If they're Coke and we're Pepsi, we're very happy to see Coke worth $9 billion," BranchOut founder and CEO Rick Marini said. Following LinkedIn's IPO on Thursday, the company's stock was again trading at or above $100 a share today, putting the value of the company at $9 billion or more.

BranchOut is another professional social network, but it's actually embedded within Facebook just like FarmVille or any other third-party application--with the advantage that it allows users to tap into all their personal connections for professional networking. At the same time, BranchOut allows users to create a profile with more professional details than their regular Facebook profiles--and also keep the two somewhat separate.

BranchOut, which brought its service out of beta in January, raised $18 million in venture financing earlier this month, for a total of $24 million in the last nine months, Marini said.

Marini said he and his colleagues have "tremendous respect" for the way LinkedIn pioneered the professional social networking market. "We just believe that in the future, whether personal or professional, networking is all going to be on Facebook going forward," he said. BranchOut is so Facebook-centric that its own website is very minimal, with a home page dominated by a button linking to the BranchOut Facebook app. BranchOut also embraces some game-like modes of Facebook interaction, such as an application prompting you to vote on which of your contacts you'd rather work with and badges to recognize the people who use the application most actively.

One challenge the service may face is the perception that it doesn't allow people to maintain the clean separation between their personal and professional lives that they get by putting their professional personas on a different service from their personal ones. When you use BranchOut, your personal profile is just a click away for someone who discovers your professional profile. But Marini says that's true no matter where you put your professional information. "Your Facebook profile is always just a click away," he said.

The BranchOut service itself is also the subject of criticism from some former users who said it didn't respect their privacy boundaries.

Sheryl Connelly, CEO of Marketing Media Management in Louisville, Ky., gave a presentation on BranchOut and LinkedIn earlier this week, and she said people who are concerned about privacy can address those issues by taking a few minutes to tweak the privacy settings on their Facebook profiles before signing up for BranchOut. But she does believe the service is worthwhile. LinkedIn will probably remain dominant for C-level executives, she said, but BranchOut "can be used by anybody at any level, whether blue collar or white collar, and can allow the general public to be more of a participant in their job search."

Cynthia Seymour, a Web and social media consultant with Seymour Results in south Florida, said she has experimented with BranchOut and used the service to give recommendations to other members. Because it has attracted a population of early adopters, she has found it can be a good tool for connecting with prominent Web design and marketing figures.

"I like it. I really think it's interesting," she said, but then added that she doesn't see it as being quite as professional as LinkedIn.

"You know how funky Facebook can be, with moving things around all the time? BranchOut is much more of a Facebook experience that way," Seymour said. She and Connelly both had their doubts about the appropriateness of game features such as voting on other members in a career-oriented service.

"I think that's a little too cheesy, maybe, for our generation--I don't think that's something a corporate CEO wants to do," Seymour said. "Maybe for younger people."

Marini said the younger generation is indeed one area where he sees an opportunity. College graduates, for example, have typically invested years of effort into building up their Facebook networks. "Why would you start over on another site when you already have 1,000 people on your friend graph?" he asked.

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Boston to see the latest social business tools and technologies. Register with code CPBJEB03 and save $100 off conference passes or for a free expo pass. It happens June 20-23. Find out more.

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