By Alexei Oreskovic
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Professional social network LinkedIn Corp will let its users "follow" and receive updates from people outside their personal contact list, a move that could entice users to spend more time on its website.
The new feature, which LinkedIn announced on Tuesday, takes a page from other popular social networks such as Twitter and Facebook Inc, where users can check for updates from leaders, celebrities and others with large numbers of followers,
Until now, LinkedIn's 175 million-member social network was more closed, mainly serving people who select their own network of business contacts and others, often using it to hunt for jobs. Users of LinkedIn could only share information with their immediate circle of contacts on the service.
The new feature means that celebrities and ordinary LinkedIn users alike will be able to post messages, share photos and links to news articles that can be read by a broad group of people.
The ability to have followers will initially be available to only 150 LinkedIn users the company has pre-selected, including Virgin Group's Richard Branson, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and Huffington Post President Arianna Huffington. President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Mitt Romney are also among the initial group. Eventually, any user on LinkedIn will be able to have others follow them, the company said.
The change could spur people to spend more time on LinkedIn, allowing the company to generate more advertising revenue.
LinkedIn's U.S. users spent an average of 20.6 minutes on its website in August, compared with an average of 402.9 minutes for Facebook users, according to data analytics firm comScore. And LinkedIn users made an average of 5.4 visits to its website in August, compared with 35.6 visits by users on Facebook.
The move also comes at a time when LinkedIn is facing competition from rivals that offer similar professional networking and job-searching services directly on Facebook's social network, such as BranchOut, which said in April that its Facebook app had 25 million users.
LinkedIn, which had revenue of $522 million last year, makes money from selling ads and premium subscriptions, as well as from offering specialized services to recruiters.
Shares of LinkedIn, which finished Monday's regular trading session at $117.94, are up 87 percent this year.
(Reporting By Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by Ken Wills)