For media executives the boom in social networking presents choices well beyond the personal quandaries of whom to "friend" on Facebook or accept as a LinkedIn contact (Jack Myers Media Business Report, August 27). While companies have been using Facebook, MySpace and other mass networks as part of their media, marketing or customer relationship strategies, others want to reap the benefits of social networking while keeping control of the brands they've created and communities aggregated around them. Some are testing "invitee-only" walled gardens on Facebook. Others are building their own networks to serve what Demand Media CEO Richard Rosenblatt calls "niche-passionate verticals."
While social networking participation has grown some 40 percent in the last year, according to comScore, providers of B2B solutions say they're seeing an even bigger boom. Leverage Software CEO Mike Walsh says he's seen a 10-fold increase in inquiries in the last 12 months for the "private labeled" networks his company provides to the likes of The New York Times, Fortune and Nielsen's Brandweek and Adweek, as well as large consumer brands like P&G, HP and Hilton. He plans to nearly double his staff to more than 40 people this year. While the RFPs are increasing, the demands and desires are, too, with expectations typically out-of-sync with available capabilities. Walsh, KickApps SVP of marketing Michael Chin and others gave a few tips in exclusive interviews with Jack Myers Media Business Report.
The first decision you need to make is whether social networking is right for your needs. A company "shouldn't rush into a social network just because it's hot," Walsh says. "They have to think about the objectives and the pros and cons of launching it." Think about whether you are going for a mass play in which content and community is the draw – and if teenagers are massed with 40-something engineers, so be it. Or do you want a more controlled, invite-only environment? How do you want the folks to interact, and how is your community likely to share? Is your community more like the tech managers on Infoworld.com's IT-Exec Connect platform, looking for fast answers to highly technical questions? Or is it something like Café Mom, where mothers dip in and out with advice and simple words of comfort? How will those choices affect the design and architecture of your site? Do you want the social networking to fit into your existing design or spin off in another orbit? Do you really want everything – blogs, polls, user profiling, charts, widgets, user-generated video and more? Throwing everything up at once might not only blow out the budget, but also disperse, rather than aggregate and hone a community.
Do you want to pay for an enterprise solution and "monetize" the content yourself, which is the Leverage Software model. Or would you be happy with a KickApps-style revenue share? Do you want an off-the-shelf solution like Ning, where you bear none of the freight but the community is run completely through their site? Are the servers ready to bear the load of whatever happens? Vibe magazine's recent user video contest increased views to their video pages from 10,000 per month to 50,000 per day, Chin says.
Will you be creating the community from scratch? That's a lot tougher than tapping into one that already exists. You may want to partner with, or even buy a community (which is one reason many recent Web 2.0 deals have been purchases of specific "verticals"). Either way, you'll have to market your network to get it off the ground. That might be links on your site, emails, search engine marketing, and viral techniques, or traditional advertising campaigns. "Viral growth doesn't just happen," Mint Digital VP of business development Toby Daniels said at a recent Manhattan tech gathering. "You need to architect, design and promote it."
If you're a marketer, what kind of environment will your ads appear in? Niche communities tend to be very aggressive about removing inappropriate content, but it's not fool-proof. Chin tested Wikipedia by posting a description of the fake word "plastication" (to wrap something in plastic wrap). It was taken down after eight hours. The community will be engaged, interested, and, presumably, pre-qualified. But will the crowd be so engaged that they'll ignore your marketing messages? If you try to seed the environment will you get lambasted, as recently happened to someone offering counseling services on the recently purchased Maya's Mom?
But whatever your editorial and business goals, one thing you can't have is absolute control.. "If discussions go off in one direction, that's where the discussion's going to go," Walsh notes. With social networks, you have to be willing to embrace that prospect, and let the growth come where it will.
KickApps can be reached via David George, EVP of Sales & Client Services at email@example.com.
Leverage Software can be reached through CEO Mike Walsh, at firstname.lastname@example.org