Monday, February 18, 2008

Social Networking’s Field of Dreams


Scene from Field of Dreams

In one of my favorite movies, “Field of Dreams,” the main character Ray Kinsella struggles with the idea of building a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. Questioning his sanity, he does so with the assurances from a voice that tells him: “If you build it, they will come.” In the end, he is amply rewarded.

Today’s corporate communications professionals probably don’t worry about baseball fields, but when faced with the idea of launching a social network they should not be faulted if they ask themselves the same question: “If we build it, will they come?”

As more companies launch forums, build social networks, or create FaceBook or MySpace pages, there is pressure to follow suit. And that’s not an easy task. Social networks force corporate communications professionals to face a legion of concerns, none more pressing than achieving critical mass. The blogosphere is rather unforgiving, and an irrelevant social network can be worse than no network at all.

Personally it reminds me of the time when I did advance for the Dick Gephardt for President campaign in 1988. Large crowds were your measurement for success. Failure to deliver was hazardous to your political career.

In launching a social network, it is tempting to create a FaceBook page and declare mission accomplished. Yes you can check off that item on your social media to do list. But having friends on your company page rarely taps a user base looking for a meaningful forum to engage with your brand or company.

That is why I called some social network companies KickApps, GoingOn, CollectiveX, Broadband Mechanics, Snapp Networks, Haystack, and ONEsite. They provide tools to help companies build and brand their own unique social networks. Mark Hendrickson’s Techcrunch piece based on initial research by Jeremiah Owyang was very helpful in identifying these companies.

Tapping Your Potential

So how do you build a crowd? Shaun Callahan, chief involvement officer at CollectiveX, told me it’s usually best to tap existing constituencies and their ability to self organize. Just as it is easier to lead a parade by finding one already in progress, it’s easer to find an existing conversation to engage a brand. Having a strong brand doesn’t mean a strong community. Even if you help build a community from scratch, social networks have to have a reason for members to join and remain engaged.

Knowing Your Audience

Universally, respondents said that understanding your audience was key to achieving critical mass. As Robby White at ONEsite wrote me:

“If the right marketing strategy is achieved, it is not difficult to obtain a critical mass. You just need to be able to see what users like/dislike and be able to customize to those changes and recommendations.”

Serving Their Needs

And Mark Sigal at Snapp Networks offered up some tough love. He gave me an emphatic “NO” to the question of whether visitors will magically appear from the cornfields. “Communities are living organisms that must be tended to, cultivated, and fertilized similar to the way gardens are tended.”

He cites three elements to successful online community building:

One is the raw ability to design a communal space that is engaging, speaks with a clear voice to the target audience, has a clear target audience and a well-defined set of “hot spots” that you are trying to drive users to.

The second item of importance is having someone on the community-building side that is effective at reaching out to the spots where a community’s target audience currently hangs out (e.g., related blogs, discussion groups, etc.), and having a strategy to compellingly communicate the WHAT, the WHY and the SO WHAT to that audience.

The last item that drives success in communities is the existence of one or more community leaders that drive conversations, post and spotlight relevant content and the like.

 

Defining Success

Ideally, success is identifying a need, solving the problem, and branding the solution – whether it’s a television network providing a forum to discuss the TV show “Lost” or a company wishing to shore up it’s green creditials by mobilizing a community to save a local park. But even then, the branding experience should serve the larger brand of the company sponsoring the social network.

When it comes to achieving critical mass, there is no such thing as a sold out stadium. Critical mass is about relative measurements, not absolutes. In talking to Cerado CEO Christopher Carfi, the number of members, number of contributors, or number of comments or posts can’t be applied uniformly. Your target will vary by size of your constituency. A small community of highly engaged members may serve your brand better than a large group of members who visit infrequently. Or as Marc Canter at Broadband Mechanics wrote: “I’d rather have the right 50 or 150 people – than 5M wrong people.”

Shaun Callahan offered an interesting critical mass metric:

the ratio of the number of invitations to join a network to the number of acceptances and then the ratio of acceptances to the number who actually contribute.

It is also useful to gauge who has contributed in the last 90 days and who did so in the last week.

Beyond metrics, Michael Chin, senior vice president of marketing at KickApps pointed to a useful white paper that listed nine steps in building a successful community. Number one was to define your community’s purpose and audience.


Scene from The Candidate

“What happens now?”

Given the political season, I am also reminded of the movie “The Candidate.” Here the underdog senatorial candidate played by Robert Redford wins a long shot election with his good looks and effective marketing. In the final scene, as the candidate assesses his victory, he turns to his advisor and asks “What happens now?”

For those who successfully reach critical mass, the ball game or the campaign (pick your movie metaphor) has only begun.

Jon Corshen, president and CEO at GoingOn, looked beyond reaching critical mass to sustainability. It is one thing to drive traffic to a site; it is quite another for the site to remain relevant.

“At the end of the day, it’s about dialogue and better ways to create more meaningful discussions. Otherwise you have a static website.” And that requires resources to ensure fresh content, users and moderators to facilitate discussions, and support to handle technical glitches.

I have not done justice to all the insights that these folks shared with me. There is too much to cover in one posting, but I wanted to share with you some of their thoughts.

For now, it’s enough to reflect on the basics of building a social network. I will need to dive deeper in subsequent postings. But I will leave you with one more thought. In successfully targeting your audience and reaching critical mass, the problem may not ultimately be whether they will come, but what will you do when they come.

Let me get back to you.

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Posted by Dan Greenfield in 06:19:09
Comments

2 Responses to “Social Networking’s Field of Dreams”

  1. torin ellis says:

    Your ending – “What will you do when they come?” – was so on point. The entire piece was well written and the insight from the company leaders was valuable.

    I’ve looked at a number of online networks and even joined a few in my time. I must say that so far, my greatest success has come from my participation on Collective X. Why? For several reasons – far too many to name. One that I will share is around leadership.

    In every sense of the word, these guys exhibit leadership – from the initial thoughts around starting the company to the actions they take day in and day out. From eight to faint…the Collective X team is focused on making the experience too valuable for participants to let go of.

    A systemic problem with Social sites. Traffic stats show that many are loosing their steam. I see just the opposite here. Go ahead, mosey on over to my group…you’ll see: mondaymover.collectivex.com.

  2. Dan Greenfield says:

    Thanks for your feedback. To your point about networks loosing steam, check out a Lee Gomes piece in today’s Wall Street Journal (More Firms Create Own Social Networks). I believe you need to have a subscription. He interviewed Jerry Sheer of Sparta Social Networks. Social Networks are increasingly a part of the customer experience. They are today what websites were in the 1990′s and ecommerce sites were in the early 2000s.

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