If you’re in touch with the web these days, you probably already realize the ubiquitous nature of online social networking. There are literally thousands of social networking sites operating on the web today, covering virtually every interest and niche imaginable. This trend has become so pervasive that presidential campaigns have even begun using social networking platforms to leverage support for the coming election. Presumably, most of the visitors reading this article belong to one or more of the major social networks.
When you take a moment to consider the number of networks on which you have an account either because you were invited by a friend or because you’d sought out to find others who share a particular interest, it’s easy to imagine a number ranging from 3 to 6, and with younger web users – even more. Between business networking sites like LinkedIn, general networks such as MySpace & Facebook, Social Review networks such as Yelp & Judy’s Book, and the countless others serving an even more defined niche, it becomes apparent that there is a group to suit every interest.
But how many networks can one person actively engage in? How many social networks can one person split their time between before their perception of a network’s value becomes diluted?
We asked four of our clients who run successful social networking websites to share their thoughts on this question, and to define what it is about their approach that makes their users stay active.
Adriaan Zimmerman – Founder & President
Space: ‘Conscious commerce’ through Environmentally Friendly Social Networking and Affiliate Sales
Q: How is your network remarkable and how do you distinguish between other major networks?
A: Greendeavor uses social networking features throughout the site but is not merely a social network. It would be very difficult for any company to launch a successful social network in the face of dominant players such as Facebook or MySpace. Our business model takes a different approach and leverages social networking to support and drive our core business model of a ‘green’ rewards program. We keep users coming back in three ways.
- By having users offset their Carbon Footprint, we give them a clear goal and a simple means to monitor their progress.
- The Carbon Meter in their profile is something they own, and is subject to peer review.
- We’ve developed relevant daily trivia which is emailed to our users and keeps them coming back to the network to try and earn points with correct answers.
Q: For any social network, you could argue that you need your users to be committed. Ostensibly, you yourself are a member of multiple networks. How many communities can you actively participate in before it’s just too much?
A: I would agree that for any social network, it should be important to get users to commit to participating. In my opinion, I’d say the average internet user could participate in 3 social networks or communities – 2 that they use regularly and one that they can check in on from time to time. I personally am a member of 4 networks, but have very little ongoing interest in two.
Q: Do you think that networks that encourage action outside of the web are more valuable or successful than communities that are entirely virtual?
A: Ideally, outside of your network there should be gratification that is unique to your network. I don’t necessarily think sites that use action incentives are more valuable, rather that they’re using a feature necessary to distinguish themselves.
Erin Friedman – VP of Marketing
Space: Local Deals and Reviews
Q: How does Judy’s Book differentiate the social aspects of what you deliver to your users?
A: We focus on delivering quality deals and local discounts to our user base. As far as we know, there aren’t any other online destinations can go to find comprehensive local sale, deal and coupon information.
Q: How do you keep your members coming back and interacting on a regular basis?
A: Passion is at the heart of all successful social networks and our customers are passionate about saving money when they shop. We provide highly relevant deals based on a member’s location with an ease and utility for the customer to shop. The combination of these two efforts is what we think will keep customers coming back. We’re seeing that the younger generations are better at multi-tasking which suggests that no single social network will win. Networks that can deliver depth in a particular vertical or topic of interest will attract a user’s interest time and again.
Thi Luu – Vice President, Operations & Finance
Space: User-Based Video Product Reviews, Affiliate Sales
Q: Thi, if you had to choose, what is Expo TV’s single defining element?
A: Our network is about consumerism and communicating it through a video medium as opposed to plain text. We are different from a lot of the major networks where users are primarily focused on making friends. Instead, we connect people through their opinions of products. Since video is so powerful, you start to get a feel for the personality of the reviewer. The reviewer is also rewarded monetarily for every approved review they submit.
Q: I imagine that with the commitment involved in producing a video, you have different levels of users. Is it important to have many ‘super users’ or can you afford for your members to be more passive?
A: Like most social networks, we have different tiers of users. Our video creators make a big commitment to the community, and our most prolific creators come to the site frequently to interact with other members, check their accounts and upload more videos. For casual users, they can visit the site every once in a while, but our goal is to convert casual users to video creators.
Q: How many networks do you think someone can actively participate in?
A: I think for someone to be really active in social communities, the number is between 3 and 5. I have a feeling this may increase with young demographics who have grown up with the Web, IM and multi-tasking.
Mark Roberge – Founder
Space: Community-Based Pet Services and Resources
Q: What techniques have you used to differentiate and grow your network’s niche?
A: Pawspot has always targeted a very particular vertical. We knew there were other social networks that were centered around pet lovers and we knew that their users were generating content and building community. Our major differentiation was that we targeted several US cities and provided users with tools to grow and promote the experience locally. Suddenly, the relevance of users exchanging pet sitting, discovering parks together, finding local pet services & products and even posting notices for lost animals became much more tangible. We realized that we couldn’t be everything to everyone and started with a few cities where we truly understood our user.
Q: What are some of the ways that you’ve grown and expanded from your initial launch in New York? What techniques does your network use to keep users coming back?
A: We provided tools for the users we considered the ‘influencers.’ In every social circle, there are people who spread ideas more than others. We gave these types of users methods to easily advertise features of our site and share their experiences with others.
Customer retention has always been an important factor for us – and it should be for any site that uses community. We see the process in terms of Acquisition, Retention and Monetization – with retention being the most important factor.
To keep them coming back, we implemented some the following features and promotions:
- An MVP Program that rates you by activity (Incidentally, Judy’s Book did something similar with their ‘City Editor’ badge – a user status that users work hard to earn). Online status can sometimes be even more of a motivation to users than monetary reward.
- Monthly Contests and Prizes
- A Newsletter that gives users updates on new content and events transpiring in the past week.
Q: So how do you split your time between the social networks you’re a part of?
A: I consider social networking websites to be an extension of the social networks you’re a part of in everyday life. I think people split their time between them similarly to the way they do in real life. I visit some communities much more often than others. For example – I only log in to a site like LinkedIn occasionally when I want to update my profile, recommend a colleague or accept an invitation to join someone’s network. Though it can be highly useful, the need to visit doesn’t arise on a daily basis.
Q: Your site encourages the community to interact outside of the virtual world. Do you consider this practice as adding more value than a site which exists solely on the net? Are there any potential negatives of ‘cutting out the middleman’ when users start to form actual relationships?
A: I wouldn’t say there’s any way to quantify whether a physical aspect adds more value, but I know that our users appreciate the tangibility of their experience offline. Trust is a factor though, and Pawspot is respectful of our users’ privacy in addition to the need to structure the offline experience. Once users meet offline, their relationship is their own, though they may continue to use Pawspot to manage that relationship.
Consider the case of a dating site that earns money from two people being paying members and staying single. While browsing profiles, they decide to meet, fall in love and get married. They both cancel their accounts. Suddenly, the site has delivered what it has promised and as a result they’ve lost two paying members. They gain credibility through referrals and an excellent testimonial, attracting new customers. Though the loss may seem like a negative at first, it’s just part of the cyclical nature of that type of community and the interaction it promotes.
Bruce Franco – Founder
Space: Casual local outings for meeting new people tonight
Mix’s novel concept takes the offline experience to a new degree. Instead of first creating a community online, Mix puts them in real world “instant” mixers to meet new people face-to-face the very same day they sign up. Mix’s goal is to give users the same level of control over their real world social networking as they now have with their online communities. When making a reservation, Mix lets users select the night, the neighborhood, the venue type, their maximum travel distance, gives each a choice of at least two age brackets, and even lets them pick their price point – starting with a free option. The mixers are formulated by geographically clustering users into small groups of 5 to 7 people that are sent to a lounge or bar centrally located to the mixer participants. After the mixer, the users decide which of their ‘Mix Mates’ they would like to meet again and can begin messaging one another and exchanging contact information through the Mix site. Mix will launch its Singles platform as MixBoston on October 17th.
Q: What are some of the ways you will encourage community after your launch?
A: There are two answers to this question. First, Mix’s core service provides a spontaneous, quick, and simple way for you to meet new people, but we also offer a second free service that lets people coordinate “instant” real world get-togethers with their own friends without having to make any back-and-forth phone calls or emails – it’s click, send, done, and Mix does the rest. It’s like an Evite for tonight, but without all the user-to-website interaction. Not only does this service balance our website so that Mix appeals to people with a group of friends, as well as those who want to make new friends, but because it simplifies peoples’ lives by completely eliminating the scheduling dimension it should encourage them to get together with their friends more often.
The second answer has to do with the fact that Mix can add a real world component to any website with a virtual community. Mix plans to provide its patent pending technology to any topic or demographic specific website on a shared revenue basis. We believe that our ability to add revenue to any social networking site will be very compelling.
Q: If a user tries Mix once or uses periodically, will there be enough of a user base for the network to be considered successful?
A: Yes, our secondary service of facilitating last minute instant get-togethers with your friends should always give people a good reason to use Mix in one way or the other. Not only that, but people who already have enough friends can’t always get them to go out, so Mix fills the gap in that situation as well, and lets you socialize whenever you want. This broad appeal will provide us with enough diversity of users to keep the network functioning and growing.
Mix also has an early adopter mechanism that dramatically alleviates the critical mass issue. Once we reach critical mass we will we will be able to offer mixers every night of the week at set times (e.g. 6 PM & 8 PM), but in the mean time our application covers the concept of broadcasting a mixer request notice to mobile devices as well as by email. On any day that someone wants to go out they can trigger this notice, and if we get just 5 positive responses there will be a mixer. So, as you can see, even as few as 100 people in an age bracket can support the launch. Furthermore, early adopters are always the most avid users and even a small growth rate can maintain the momentum.