Despite the economic downturn, the exponential growth of social network giants such as MySpace, Facebook and Classmates Online is strengthening our belief that the social media phenomenon will continue to bear new business ideas, social contracts and connections. Recent ComScore data (May 2008) was showing year over year growth of 34 percent for Facebook and 23 percent for Classmates.com.
Their success is inspiring companies to start their own social networks. They range from branded private communities that give product-related feedback to public groups that grow organically, branching into discussions driven by consumers. Whether for large commercial players or brand communities, social networks’ paths to success share the same fundamental characteristics:
o Ease of access
o Ease of connectivity
o Ease of sharing
Social network users are already bombarded with information and many have multiple profiles to manage. Therefore, an emerging social network needs to have low barriers to entry and a significant benefit to lure new members.
The vanity in spreading personal stories, the voyeuristic appeal of sifting through other people’s posts and the satisfaction from connecting with old time friends represent the first phase of these Web 2.0 platforms. Next generation social networks will need to help transform virtual experiences into reality.
For instance, members will join a community to help fundraising efforts, give and receive recommendations for product purchases, organize for offline meetings/demonstrations or train for a new role in a company or community. Their membership and time spent online will have tangible benefits.
There are some social networks with goal-driven membership structures. Social Vibe gets its members to match brands with non-profits, Care2 enables its users to sign online petitions and take green actions and SheSpeaks brings consumers’ opinions about new products to companies. Yet in general, social networkers spend their time on entertainment and knowledge sharing. Going forward, marketers’ challenge will be to build and sustain networks around social or commercial goals.
* Gretchen Krieg contributed to this post with her research and analysis.
You can’t. And you shouldn’t. PR professionals are often asked to reach out to online communities and social networks. There is an urge to draft a few paragraphs with all the key messages and call John Smith at the target Web site. But there is no such editorial contact at social networks. The whole point about the social networks is that every site member can be a contact who can hear your story and choose to tell it to their friends and family. The way to engage social network members is through e-CRM (online customer relationship management) and grassroots activism.
For instance, a company looking to tap into the power of moms’ word of mouth can set up shop on a mommy network and begin reaching out to the community by offering them a valuable service. The company can start a branded page or group on the site, but to draw and keep the right audience, they need to offer various activities, compelling content and conversation starters in these areas. Contests with prizes, expert advice, coupons, discussion forums, user-generated video platforms are some of ways to appeal to a social network crowd.
To sustain momentum around the brand area, companies need to dedicate staff to respond to visitors’ queries, lead and participate in conversations. They also need to have a graceful exit strategy, knowing when and how those conversations with the social network audience will reach a meaningful conclusion.
It’s not a push strategy. It’s not a pitch. It’s an ongoing relationship.
A couple weekends ago, a friend of mine and I sat at my kitchen table and tried to poke holes in her new business plan. She wanted to start a social network and I offered help since I work in a related field. Her focus were the European professionals living in the US. She split the site into two on a napkin: “Kindle on this side and mingle on this side, ” she said.
“Take it a notch higher and make it bigger,” I replied in a voice that said i-do-many-brainstorms-allow-me. How about a site for expats? Each person becomes an expert for the city they know best or where they live. A light bulb lit in her head, “You’re right, it’s so much bigger than just meeting others. You need to know how to rent a place, where to send children to school before you even move!” she proclaimed.
I was convinced I had set her on a new course, until I got an invitation to join InterNations.org
from another friend who is half Turkish, half Libyan and who has lived in Libya, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Canada, India and the USA. It was the expat idea from the kitchen –though, already established and looking pretty slick with active city ambassadors, a donation line to AFS programs and new profiles being set up from around the world, by the minute.
Here is InterNations’ mission statement:
“InterNations aims to be the leading platform for exchange between internationally-minded and acting individuals. Building upon a strong and open-minded international community, InterNations is committed to engage charitably and support cross-cultural understanding beyond the scope of its online community. To do so, InterNations and its members take specific actions together with the AFS Intercultural Programs to support less privileged people around the world in gaining access to international education and experience.”
I am planning to go to a NY social get-together next week, to meet other members in person. I shall report back.