I just finished the rather fawning Fast Company cover story on Ning, and I must agree their business model is impressive to say the least. In fact, I envy it.
If you're not familiar with Ning, it's an easy way to set up your own social network, and more than 230,000 of them exist right now. It's very easy. And therein lies the problem-not for Ning, but for anyone trying to gain traction for their particular network.
Here's the specific problem:
Nobody wants to join a social network-and they never have.
If that's true, you say, then why have they been so wildly successful? More on that later, but it's similar to this age-old marketing truism: "Nobody ever wanted to buy an 1/8th-inch drill bit. All they wanted to do was drill an 1/8th-inch hole."
One Facebook, Lots of Niche Sites
Facebook serves its purpose by being the mass site, the one that everyone joins, but it's really not good for other things. Niche social networks, on the other hand, are smaller, but can be more powerful, more active and more fun. (CafeMom, FitSugar and many more have much better conversations than most Facebook groups I've ever seen.) But 230,000 of them? What's the differentiator?
Recently, I was invited by Chris Patterson to join InSocialMedia.com. I did, of course-it is, after all, what I do for a living. But other than that, I'm not sure why I joined or what I'll get out of it. The site is built on Ning. When I was asked my "relationship status" when I joined the group, it got me to wonder how that was relevant to working in social media.
Form Must Follow Function
If nobody ever wanted to join a social network, why have they proliferated? Simple. What people have wanted to do is this:
- Communicate with their circle of friends easily (and they got Facebook)
- Use their business networks for professional gain (and they got LinkedIn)
- Keep up with their ever changing address book (and they got Plaxo)
- Share tips with other moms (and they got CafeMom)
- and the list goes on...
Yes, these ARE social networks, but that's because that was the best answer for the function that was desired. Social networking is just a tool, and out-of-the-box solutions must be tailored to match the purpose that they are meant to serve.
Now let's go back to InSocialMedia.com (and I'm not picking on it, it's just a perfect example of my point). Here are the questions I have for Chris and the rest of the group on there:
- What is the basic point of InSocialMedia.com?
- How is my relationship status relevant to that point? (I'm married. It's no secret, and I'm not offended by the question, but it's an example that the site hasn't been tailored for its purpose.)
- Are we meant to be sharing the best articles and insights on the profession of social media (and if, so, don't we have that in Social Media Today and Sphinn)?
- How are the tools you've chosen for your social network (and how you've arranged those tools) aligned with the goals of the site? Why would people "in social media" be looking for a place to upload pictures and videos, for example? We have dozens.
These are the types of questions social networks going forward must ask. Do people want to join a community around this topic and, if so, what is the minimal amount of effort they should be required to take to begin to benefit from it and what will they get back?
If you want to bang out a quick social network with all the basics, by all means use Ning. But if you're trying to build a social network that will rise above the other 230,000+ floating around there today, it's no longer likely to be based on your topic. You're going to have to do a bit more work, and success is more likely to be based on how you execute.
For that, I'd look at a more robust application, something like KickApps. Because the social networks that will thrive will be those that think it out before they launch. If you really customize your site with KickApps, and choose only those elements that support the goals of the site, then maybe you've got a chance to beat the social network fatigue that is starting to set in.
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