Earlier this week, I presented my take on marketing with social media. One of the key elements in creating a strategy is building niche communities of users. There are two sides to that challenge — what it takes for a marketer to build a community, and what it takes for me as a user to want to participate in that community.
Sometimes I’m a reluctant participant. I may join a social network because friends or colleagues ask me, and then I quickly start to disengage. You’ve probably had that experience too and have discovered that unless there’s something very specific that you’re interested in, you’re not likely to stay in that community. And like me, you probably belong to a number of networks you’re not really participating in. So, with that in mind, what would be the ideal social network?
For me, today, it would probably be a combination of Facebook, Ning and maybe some features from LinkedIn and Friendfeed thrown in. The ideal social network would be a personal network of communities that I could weave together as I like, giving each a weight based on my engagement and interest. To be honest, I think many of us already do this on an ad hoc basis, with a wide range of standalone networks that remain like gated communities. We spend a lot of time and effort navigating between these networks.
For what I have in mind, Ning comes close in theory. By leveraging an open framework, it allows people to build and join multiple niche networks. However, while Ning allows you to ‘build a community for anything’ it doesn’t allow you to ‘build a community for everything’. The communities aren’t necessarily well connected nor integrated into a profile view.
Right now, nobody does that better than Facebook. Still, one of my hangups with Facebook (and a reason I don’t spend much time there anymore), is that my profile is viewed the same way by everyone on my friend list. You can’t isolate parts of your profile information to maintain, for example, a ‘business’ profile or a ‘family’ profile. Ideally, if you’re looking for work contacts, you should be able to create a profile that includes work experience, areas of expertise and business-related content — stuff that you might not want your friends to see.
Facebook ‘circles’ and ‘networks’ cover this functionality to a limited extent, but there’s much greater control we could potentially have over our information, which would allow us to facilitate multiple communities to participate in areas of interest and share this with friends who share the same interest — but through your own network. So segments within your own network could be part of larger networks formed around shared interests, but could also exist independently. In a technical sense, the nature of these networks would be ‘dynamic’ rather than defined. These myriad communities would be fluid and flow through you, the user. In that sense, it would be just like real life.
There are other things that could go into a wish list for the ideal social network. From experience, you’ve probably got a long list of features as well. To summarize, for me, it comes down to these key points:
Make it easy to join: Make it easy for people to join and share information between their networks and services. If they can use existing IDs, and possibly share content from other relevant services, they’re more likely to join a network.
Let users control participation: Let users decide what they want to share and with whom. Let users build an umbrella network of people and content, and then segment this network into communities of interest.
Provide and aggregate targeted content: Provide topics and content that are geared toward specific interests, and are surfaced so that users don’t have to wade through a lot of other topics to find them. The more targeted a community, the easier this will be. And the more likely users will have something to contribute.