Thursday, 1 November 2012

Social networks: If you build it, will they come?

Don't do what Costner did or you will fail.
Social is pretty big now, right? If you ask me what main things the next generation have which I didn't have growing up, I'd say Facebook, Twitter and Apps. It's no surprise then that businesses are desperate to get involved and use social networking to boost their profile and their profits. And while they're at it they will create a couple of apps too.

There are many different strategies to leverage social media. Some companies try to use what's already there. They will litter their web site with Social calls to action. Do you 'Like' this page about the latest innovation in washing powder? Of course I do! Which person of sound mind wouldn’t? Would you like to tweet and then re-tweet this great deal on life insurance? Did you have to ask? #Death is trending right now.

Deep social integration is now mandated as part of any digital experience. Integrating with APIs allow you to both read and write – sometime very personal - data belonging to users’ social network accounts. Do you allow this web site to harvest your thoughts, photos and desires for its nefarious purposes? Hells Yes! If it means I can get regular updates on their life changing products and services, Allow! Allow! Allow!  Would you like this App to post to your wall every time you manage to kill the boss on each level? The world needs to know I am a boss killer.

Sometimes companies and organisations take a bold step and create a social network of their own. They may feel they have a niche which isn’t fulfilled by existing networks out there and there is an untapped community needing new online tools to connect and interact. So they take the plunge and build a new online social network in the hope that if you build it, they will come. This is where most fail and their social network sites end up in an unvisited graveyard in cyberspace.

To avoid a social network becoming a King Midas Palace – elaborate, expensive but empty of life - then the single most important principle is: social means people, not technology. You can end up spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a great social platform but without a active user base it delivery very little return on investment.

Here are tech rash top tips for creating a social platform:

Rebuilding Facebook is expensive

Consumers expect a lot from technology because powerful services are given away for free. Social media services like Facebook and Twitter are perfect examples of this. Millions of dollars and man hours invested into something which is given away and expected to be continuously innovative and up and running all of the time. This leads to a very high expectation that your social platform must be like the industry leaders. Don’t underestimate the cost of building a multi-lingual, scalable platform that can meet the extravagant demands of the online community. You could spend half a million and just be getting started.

Don’t try and do everything at once

A social platform can have an infinite amount of features and functionality. The more features and functions you throw into your upfront design the more costly and complicated the build will be. These design decisions are also made before users have started to use the system. And for social networks this is especially bad as functionality should be grown organically with the user base’s demands. Start with the least amount of core features and launch with those. Then reap the feedback from your user base and let the platform take into account the most important stakeholders – the users.

Invest heavily on marketing and engagement

Launching a site by flicking a switch and waiting for people to flock to it will never work. Getting people to use a site requires upfront and ongoing marketing initiatives which bears a significant cost. No matter how good the product, if people don’t know about it, it will never succeed.

Look at what is already there

Social network services out there are pretty powerful and existensibile. The Facebook API for example has a lot of new features and functions not just based around likes and comments on a wall. If you look at example apps for Facebook you can actually start to build functionality solely around the Graph API and limit the amount of bespoke engineering you have to do on your platform. There are also alot of cross cutting social services which deal with verticals such as commenting, recommendation and chat. Look to an integration approach by gluing one social platform against another as a potential solution to not re-inventing the wheel.

Measure Success

Sometimes social platforms are launched and a common and unanswered question is: “so did it work?” or “is it successful?” This is sometime answered in terms of numbers of registered users or active users but without a business case to give those numbers meaning they are empty. Creating KPIs that can tell a story as to the real value the social platform brings to your business or organisation is key. If you don’t, investors and pay masters will have no idea whether it is working or not and generally assume the worst. This is when blame storming starts occurring and the wrong things – such as the technology – can be blamed for a perceived lack of success.

On a final note: this post did start with a cynical bent but despite the author of tech-rash having misanthropic tendencies I realise that social media is here to stay. A colleague once pointed out that the term “Social Media” is meaningless. Online social interaction is now a natural part way we live and connect with people. It is simply “social” and we don’t see it in terms of anything new or “media” related. This is probably true and our children will call it something else like... “cyberxing”, or something in that vein.

Whatever the case, if you build a “cyberxing” platform make sure you follow reason rather than the voice of a dead baseball star called Shoeless Joe Jackson.

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