One of the challenges of a constantly changing technology landscape is that nearly everything one recommended to clients a few years ago is not always desirable today. A few years back I was asked to help companies build web sites. Today, people want blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
One of the benefits of a constantly changing technology landscape is that as a consultant, I can continuously grow my diversified list of services that I offer to clients adding new and interesting tactics. In the last year, I’ve been exploring virtual worlds and lately it has really been paying off as I’ve taken on new Second Life marketing projects.
More recently, I’ve been exploring custom social networks for my own projects and for my clients. With moves by major Internet sites toward a more open, “social Web” including Google’s new FriendConnect service that is currently in beta, I think social networks and virtual worlds will become more and more relevant to how companies and organizations communicate their messages and do business online.
Private-label social network can offer the following:
1. Brand building environments. I remember the days when my clients wanted their own “online communities” attached to their web sites, forums where their customers and potential customers could interact with one another and with company representatives. Besides being fraught with maintenance and liability issues, they saw online communities as viable ways to get their brands in front of people on a recurring basis. For better or worse, social networks take message boards to an entirely new level of interactivity and engagement.
2. Community building tools. Online forums of the past allowed community members to post message, either in response to existing messages or starting message threads of their own. Custom social networks allow members to express themselves through multimedia features including blogs, blog comments, page comments, photo uploads, video uploads, even audio uploads. The community can create more content in more ways than ever, tipping the publishing power from strictly the company or organization hosting the community to the members themselves.
3. Viral features. In the “old days,” online forums relied mostly on word of mouth or happenstance to build their memberships. Today, social networks provide tools that let members spread the word about the networks through widgets, easily invite other members into the network, and even see what other members are doing through activity feeds so they can do it, too.
4. Social glue. There is nothing more powerful online than the strength of social bonds. When people connect with people they know or through people they know, they are more likely to interact in and return to a community because they have a social investment in that community. By building social networks, companies and organizations use social bonding to keep people coming back for more.
Because I’m not a developer, I’ve been using Ning to build custom social networks. I like the elegance of their tools and design templates for the non-programmer and non-designer. I do find Ning is lacking in a few areas such as not offering collaborative tools for network members, not having a way to post articles or upload document files that can be shared, and lacking a calendar feature. But for the time being, they are a major player in the custom social network building space.
This week, a new service debuted in public beta mode – WackWall – looking to enter the same space as Ning. WackWall feels like a watered down version of Ning with fewer features and capabilities. For now, I’ll stick with the tool that works and keep an eye on what Google, Facebook, MySpace and others will be offering in the near future.
Are you getting into the business of building social networks? And if so, what tools are you using?