Over the past couple of weeks I have been bookmarking (del.icio.us/ealbrycht/socialnetwork) and reading a variety of articles and posts about social networks, with an emphasis on corporate or white label ones. There is a wealth of material out there; Jeremiah Owyang tracks this area closely for Forrester, for one. What I thought I'd do is synthesize here what, in my opinion, is some of the more interesting advice and thoughts out there. This isn't a "10 steps to successful social networking" article, but rather an introduction to some ideas about how to approach corporate social networks.
Today, I think that public social networks are pretty primitive things. I don't like the walled gardens, and the awkwardness of profile and friending processes are laughable. In the end, for the most part, these different social networks have become cages for pieces of my identity, which then stagnate as I forget about them. Because once you've built your little home, there is nothing much else to do other than add old high school classmates that find you or join groups that I, invariably, never really do anything with. I simply cannot imagine that translating this type of environment into a corporate garden would be successful. And yet, I don't deny that the basic concept of social networking represents a potentially powerful tool for organizations.
From conversations I have had with people, reading I have done, and my own personal experiences, I don't think people will join and participate in brand communities sponsored by organizations, just because they are asked. Nor do I think that they will do it for earning promotional bonuses (free products etc.). For particularly high profile brands there might be some initial buzz value, but I don't think it will last. Nor do I think that entertainment alone will keep people around. You can give them games to play and contests to win, but in the end, that will fall flat. So why do people join social networks? What is a commonality among successful ones (public or private)? I think it is that the networks are about something concrete.
There is a wonderful post from a couple of years ago on the concept of object-centered sociality that states "The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object." These shared objects can be jobs, dates, photos etc. Flickr is a social network based on photos. Del.icio.us is based on URLs. Upcoming.org is based on events. LinkedIn on jobs. [Examples all from post]. I look at a successful corporate social network, that of Nestle Purina: petcentric. At its core, it is about people's pets, not the brand. Brilliant.
This post suggests that, "When it becomes easy to create digital instances of the object, online services for networking on, through, and around that object will emerge too." Organizations need to ask themselves: what is their object?
Francois Gossieaux has written recently about "interrupt marketing" and how it doesn't work in social networking. He states, "It doesn't matter how a person feels about your product; it matters how they feel about themselves in the context of your product." I would broaden that, saying, "It matters how they feel about themselves and their relationships (perhaps "emotional connection" is a better phrase) with their objects in the context of your product."
Once you know your object, and you have determined that there isn't already a strong social network in place around it (if there is, it is probably better to join and participate in some way vs. trying to create a new one), what kind of social network do you construct? What kind of activities do you offer? What do you want people to DO on your network? If an important aspect of your social network is to market to its users, that marketing has to use some kind of contextual technology that inserts itself into the action stream, into what the people are doing. Search ads work because people are looking for something, as Alexander van Elsas reminds us, then admonishes us: "There is no room for advertisement when people interact."
So, what could you do on a corporate social network? Obviously providing forms of interaction (chat, forums, photo sharing, etc.) are good bets. There are plenty of tips and tool articles out there that can help with that (see my del.icio.us feed). I have stated before that companies should ask for contributions (ideas, etc.) and demonstrate they have listened. This quote comes from a profile of Communispace in the Boston Globe a couple of years ago: "Consumers also participate in the online communities because it gives them a feeling of power. They seem to love the idea of being consulted, and love even more the notion that they are being listened to." And later in the same article, "The experience of being heard is so rare."
Remember, the activities you provide have to be appropriate to the context, to the object, and to the action stream. Petcentric, with its "pet" object relies heavily on photo sharing and videos. Of course! Pets are cute, people are proud of them, they want to share/brag. What is your organization's "pet"? (Perhaps you can think about it another way. What is unique about your product? Is there anything that has an almost cult-like status or following? It could even be an "alternative" use.)
Another hurdle you will have to leap comes once you have a network and participants in place: participation inequality, which states that 90% of users are lurkers, 9% contribute a little and 1% contribute most. (Whether or not these are the exact figures, I think the basic idea is sound.) This means that for the organization, "Implementation efforts need to consciously manage participation and activity to compensate for a smaller population." This same conclusion can be read from a different context described by Kevin Kelly in The Bottom is Not Enough. He writes, arguing for some form of editorial control or leadership: "The reason every bottom-up crowd-source hive-mind needs some top-down control is because of time. The bottom runs on a different time scale than our instant culture." He continues,
"The systems we keep will be hybrid creations. They will have a strong rootstock of peer-to-peer generation, grafted below highly refined strains of controlling functions. Sturdy, robust foundations of user-made content and crowd-sourced innovation will feed very small slivers of leadership agility. Pure plays of 100% smart mobs or 100% smart elites will be rare.
The real art of business and organizations in the network economy will not be in harnessing the crowd of "everybody" (simple!) but in finding the appropriate hybrid mix of bottom and top for each niche, at the right time. The mix of control/no-control will shift as a system grows and matures. "
Perhaps the very core of the issue is a choice between existence and meaning. (I was inspired by this quote about social networks, "The existence of relationships is replacing the meaning of relationships.") The first is relatively easy to create, but the second, quite difficult. The question is: How can we create a social network that becomes a frequent/habitual part of someone's practices of meaning creation (for his/her life)? Clearly, SuperSliderFunWalls aren't the answer here. Then, the community manager comes into play, seeking to nurture meaning for all participants, which will require very special skills. (Here's a hint.)
I will be watching this space in the coming months, sharing further thoughts with you as they take shape. As always, I welcome your comments and ideas.