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Even When It’s Free, Internet Content is Still King

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First Published: Mass High Tech: The Journal of New England Technology – November 16, 2006.

If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about social networking, you don’t have to look much further than the fundamental strategies of News Corp., Google, Yahoo and the other media giants. The rules of creating a successful media company haven’t changed in 100 years — get eyeballs and sprinkle in a healthy dose of advertising. Without visitors (or readers, or communities) you can’t sell advertising. With the precipitous decline in newspaper readership and the staggering growth of online social communities, it makes perfect sense.

These social communities don’t happen by accident, though to some the recipe seems pretty clear; create a platform for sharing ideas, photos, videos or your phone number and then seed the conversation with something provocative, stir in a few activists to get the audience talking and, voila, instant community. If only it were that easy. Despite the massive amount of media coverage, only a small percentage of these social-networking sites have ever transcended more than a few thousand members.

In strange contrast to the common perception that MySpace, Facebook and other large social sites are nothing more than freewheeling dating platforms, it really is the quality of the content that separates good from great. Social media strategies with a focus on content have real meat on their bones and are paying off. The fly-by-night competitors are often stuffed with cute technologies that tend to have no real value to solving the customer problem of finding or creating good content. Long-term success relates to developing content as a primary driver of growth.

Let’s take a closer look. As communities develop, they also generate content. Some of that content is relevant to advertisers because it can be scraped off the individual profiles or interest lists as targets for highly focused targeting. This has always been the Holy Grail of advertising but remained more of a mythical outcome than anything truly real and useful. This hasn’t stopped newcomers from trying — and it appears some might actually be succeeding. New York-based Moli LLC has just pushed off into its beta release. In a demo I saw this week, the advertising was still being served off a traditional DoubleClick ad server, but Dan Belhumeur, the company’s head of New England Business Development, assures me the ads will soon be based on a member’s self-authored interests and profile demographics.

For most sites, the targeting of specific audiences is more of a grass-roots approach, in which the targeted groups are identified among the millions for a customized message or e-mail to their profile.

In response to the meteoric rise of these social networks, dozens of web marketing and optimization services have erupted to take advantage of these unsuspecting communities. Along with these new services is a encyclopedia of new terminology to clutter up your head. One such term is “social media optimization” or SMO (as opposed to “search engine optimization,” or SEO). What’s not clear yet is if this is just one of those catchy phrases or a real emerging strategy for marketers. In a recent conversation with Boston-area search guru David Pye, it’s obvious the dust will take a while to settle on this one. As Dave says in his SEO blog, Thirsty Pony, “The SMO tag is so new, you can still see the mark where the delivery-room doctor slapped it.”

Following the content is a tried-and-tested strategy of content being king, and members are being expected to generate the content that the big media houses are hoping will be the basis for continued community development. The ratios are probably something along the lines of 10-to-1, with community members being the primary drivers of content and the media owners either enriching content or ‘activating’ conversations to drive content development. Pye says, “This is where the social element of SMO comes into focus, and contribution takes different forms.” One-way content management, such as on Seth Godin’s Squidoo or the ever-popular HubPages, is playing on ego triggers to build momentum and visitor traffic. “WetPaint and Wikipedia, on the other hand, enable multiple authors to add to or enhance the same user-generated sections” Pye recently told me.

These differing models are really after the same goal of seeding community growth and providing search engines, blogs and forums with enough good content to have them falling over themselves. How you get to good content may no longer be the exclusive domains of journalists and guest writers like this one, but what is clear is that it’s still the cornerstone of audience loyalty and development.

“Start a rumor, plant a seed and see what happens. You don’t have to do all the work anymore,” Pye concludes with a sarcastic smile.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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