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I'm a partner in the advanced analytics group at Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm. My primary focus is on marketing analytics (bio). I've been writing here (views my own) about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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June 14, 2008

Re-Imagining Social Networking

Yesterday, Om Malik posted on the apparent plateau we've reached in the growth of social networking as a business.

My read:

  • For social networking to be really valuable, it's got to be really relevant to and really usable by a large number of people.
  • Today, these two conditions are true only for 15-25 year olds and for tech early adopters and evangelists (of all ages).
  • The way forward for relevance lies not in thinking "social-networking-out", but in "high-value-use-case-back".
  • The way forward for usability lies in "opt-out" vs. "opt-in" interface engineering.

This "second phase" of social network service development will be harder than the first, since "build-it-so-they-will-really-use-it" is much harder than "build-it-and-they-will-come".   I know this from first-hand experience:  I'm on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Typepad and Second Life, and a dozen more I've forgotten about, plus a number of group and enterprise versions of these services, and I've aggregated and syndicated my content and others' across these services.  In fact, in a number of these settings, I'm the organizer/"evangelist".  (Here's my FriendFeed page.)  I'd say 20% of the people I know (and my sample is biased toward early adopters) are active users of these services -- they regularly update  "What are you doing right now", update each other's Fun Walls, compare tastes in books and movies, try to enroll each other in causes, etc.  The other 80% sign up and are passive, if they pay attention at all.

What will it take to make them active users, so that we can "monetize them"?  We need to consider three things:

  • they are *not* early adopters -- they are much more utilitarian in their thinking about tools to use;
  • introducing something *new* to them means replacing something *else*;
  • "Replacing" is a process that must be thought through on multiple levels: rational, financial, emotional, social, and practical.

Here's one example:

Last week I participated on a panel called "What Blogging Brings To Business" at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston (covered by moderator Jessica Lipnack and panel-mates Patti Anklam, Doug Cornelius, and Bill Ives, among others.)  In an SRO room with nearly 200 people, we bumped up hard against the knee in the adoption curve.  The dominant question was "should people in businesses blog?".   We had asked the audience to participate actively in the discussion, and debate raged (well, politely), Mars-Venus-like, on this point.

I suggested it was the wrong question.  Thinking use-case-back about the "what" and opt-out about the "how", we should be asking, "What should we write about, whom should we publish it for, and how can we make both the contribution and consumption of the resulting content as easy as possible?"  I offered trip reports or meeting summaries (sales calls would also work, perhaps even better) as a case in point.  No one would argue they are good business practice -- even more worthwhile if published and archived where people can read them and search them.  Where did you go?  What did you learn? 

Using MadLibs for insipration (or alternatives -- the "conference attendance summary" version of this one is just begging to be written), perhaps the public and enterprise blog platforms should provide templates, or allow users to define templates, for such reports.  After all, writing is intimidating and unpleasant for many people, especially when they know they're going to get wide distribution.  And, maybe the calendaring systems in which we blocked out our attendance at such conferences should send us a batched email at the end of each day with a links to our various blog platforms, and ask/ remind us to document what happened at each meeting?  Maybe these same platforms can be configured to automatically schedule meetings for 45 minutes and leave 15 minutes at the end for group or private summary? In enterprise settings, maybe alerts or reports get sent to managers when people have/ haven't documented things?

Here's another example:

I recently went to Argentina to celebrate my grandmother's 100th birthday.  I took lots of pictures with my BlackBerry Curve.  I've set up a private blog to share these photos with my family (which I prefer to Flickr for this purpose).  I've been tediously posting them to this blog from my BlackBerry via the email address Typepad's given me for this.  I had to RTFM to figure out how, and I still haven't finished uploading the photos.

Cesar_at_la_recoleta_in_buenos_aire

A better way would have been for RIM to expose an API to its BlackBerry Curve camera app that SixApart could have built on, to allow me to download a Typepad  add-on that would have let me  pre-associate pictures taken from Argentina (the same way Google Maps for mobile knows where I am) with the appropriate blog.  Then, as I took each photo, it would have automatically made its way to this blog, after giving me a picture by picture opt-out to cancel the send or to post it to another blog.

What does this mean for the social network services themselves?

The biggest innovations have of course been the social graphs they have established, and their re-conceptions as application development platforms with APIs for third parties that leverage this information.  The smart platforms will now extend the power of their core-asset social graphs by adding "Who's collaborating with whom via what application?" to the simplistic "Who's connected to whom?", "Who's part of the same group?", or combinations thereof.  By knowing what applications we're collaborating through (along with the volumes, directions, timing, etc.), and the use cases these applications support, the social network services can better combine reach with behavioral targeting for the advertisers who foot the bill. 

Facebook's Beacon program was an admittedly clumsy foray in this direction.  Facebook was too focused on the viral marketing aspect of this thinking, and suffered a backlash as a result.    Today, when I look at the Facebook profile of a friend I know  professionally in the context of publishing and social media, I get served an ad for a stock trading service.  When I look at the Facebook profile of another friend I know in the context of a shared sports interest, I get an ad from a professional recruiter.  I'm guessing these imperfections won't last.  Out of necessity, folks with an interest in this universe are adopting the perspectives I've described.  And, as the right context gets considered in these services and ad response rates rise, the money will start flowing faster toward social media once more.

Om speculates that the way forward in terms of monetization is more niche-y  social networks.  He writes:

The way I see it, the market has shifted its focus onto niche social networks, such as those dedicated to sports, music, automobiles and pets. You know, sites like Dogster! They have focused, engaged communities, which means they can attract a higher amount of advertising dollars. (Liz came up with a taxonomy of social networks back in February 2007 that offers up an easy way to understand the nuances of the social networking landscape.)

Not only do they have a purpose, but they don’t depend on hit-or-miss behavioral targeting-based ad systems that many hope will one day turn social networks into a gold mine. After all, if you sell dog food, then everyone on Dogster is a potential customer...

The problem with this assumption is that being niche-ier doesn't necessarily mean you move beyond the usual "1% often contribute - 9% sometimes contribute - 90% never contribute" online community profile.  I believe Om's leap here -- that narrow-interest social networks have a purpose -- is flawed.  They may be more focused, and perhaps purposeful in that sense, but it doesn't mean that the applications they provide have been tuned to motivate usage.

Om's colleague Liz Gannes was thinking a year ago down the path I've suggested here, with the taxonomy of social networks she developed.  I think her classification scheme is a good one, but again I don't think we can make the assumption that just because LinkedIn is for business people that it's a use-case-based tool.  In fact, it's arguably the absence of such thinking and tools from LinkedIn that has been, to date, its biggest missed opportunity, and perhaps in the future the way it can regain the march that Facebook stole from  it.

For an upcoming post: top ten ideas for such apps.

Postscript: Josh Bernoff agrees.

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