04 Dec Virtual communities make online connections
Connecting online for friends, fun, fantasy, fortune or fame has become the province of the rapidly growing social networking phenomena. From the Korean social networking site Cyworld, to the specialty networking site Dogster, to the concept originator Classmates (according to Wikipedia), to the well known market leader MySpace, social networking sites are filling a void in the online marketplace by creating virtual communities through the networking capabilities inherent in the Internet.
The Internet and virtual communities offer consumers a worldwide, ready-made sounding board 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from others with an interest, passion, or concern similar to theirs. This connectedness leads to what Forbes calls “online hobnobbing” for social, financial, and networking gains.
Social networking sites
Social networking sites are websites designed to allow users to socialize and network online by posting a profile, looking for or networking with friends and/or professional contacts, posting opinions and perspectives, and sharing information and expertise. Social networking sites typically include a personal profile page, message boards and other tools designed to generate sharing and interaction with others on the site.
For better or for worse, they’ve become the virtual gathering spots where young, old, honest, dishonest, etc. all gather to hang out, gossip, network, play games, and make connections both legitimate and illegitimate. They are the virtual community center of the Internet age.
InformationWeek reports that social networking sites continue to see large traffic increases, with Hitwise data showing that one in 20 visits on the Internet went to a social networking site. MySpace continued to show the largest volume, receiving 82 percent of the visits to social networking sites and growing 51 percent from March to September. MySpace visitors were becoming older, with comScore Media Metrix reporting that half of the site’s users are over age 34 and only 30 percent are under 25, according to a recent New York Times article.
Other social networking sites receiving increased traffic over the six-month period (March to September) included: Bolt, 271 percent; Bebo, 95 percent; Orkut, 63 percent; and Gaia Online, 41 percent.
Meanwhile, Facebook, the second most popular social networking site, has expanded beyond its initial target audience of college students. With site visitors spending almost an hour on the site in August, investors are looking for ways to further monetize this stickiness and increased utilization. Yahoo! reportedly is one of the players kicking the tires at Facebook to see if they are worth an estimated $1 billion.
Entrepreneurs realize that broad-based sites like MySpace could be supplanted by tighter vertical social networking sites as online consumers refine and focus their energies and time. In addition, there are audience segments that haven’t been well served by the existing players in this space.
Other players are betting on creating specialty features or “gee whiz” coolness not currently available on the mainstream sites. In addition, new and existing social networking sites are expanding their delivery networks into mobile devices to capitalize on the ubiquitous nature of these tools.
Business Week profiled Eons, a social networking site for baby boomers over 50 and founded by 46-year-old Monster.com creator Jeff Taylor. The site includes age-targeted features like Top 10 to-do lists, online obituaries, and a life map for creating a timeline of your experiences. Having just hit the “Big 50” milestone, maybe this is one I should check out. Other age-based social networking providers are Sconex, targeting high school students, and “tween” targeted sites Club Penguin and Tweenland, offering greater parental controls and oversight than MySpace and Facebook.
Other social networking sites targeting a specific demographic include Koolanoo, a social networking site targeting Jewish people, an expanded social networking site for Catholics being developed by the Vatican as a “MySpace for Catholics,” and ObesityHelp, a site for severely overweight people looking to network and develop strategies to lose weight.
Beyond demographic social networks, we are seeing the growth of special interest networks with sites like LibraryThing, a network for people to share their personal libraries and discuss their favorite books; Tripmates, targeting travelers seeking advice or “travel buddies”; Clearstation, a networking community for stock-picking advice; HotSoup, a network for politically active opinion leaders; Kiva, a micro-enterprise community lending site; and DailyStrength, a community of health support groups.
Social networking sites offering new features include XuQa, a site that allows users to play games; and Hi5, a social networking site with a built-in music player.
The hip and the savvy are beginning to explore creating their own social networking sites. To help them do this, entrepreneurs have been developing Internet-based tools like Ning, Esnips, and Elgg Spaces, according to recent reports. These tools are being launched to “create branded, personal social networks,” according to Ning Chief Executive Gina Bianchini, as reported in the Dec. 4 issue of Business Week.
More than 1.7 million people have joined up with some large corporate players and entrepreneurial start-ups on virtual world site Second Life. The site takes social networking one step further with the creation of 3-D virtual communities populated with avatars, shops, show rooms, islands, and other “real world” characteristics displayed online. Among the corporations participating in Second Life are General Motors, Leo Burnett, IBM, Sony, Starwood, and Reebook.
Companies have found mixed success in launching or sponsoring their own social networking sites. WalMart for one, closed down its site, the Hub, three months after its launch after finding it wasn’t performing as expected. Meanwhile, online retailer Buy.com has ventured into the fray with its site Yub.com, Carnival Cruise Lines has launched CarnivalConnections, Coca-Cola has MyCoke.com, Nike and Google are co-sponsoring Joga.com for soccer aficionados, and Geico has stepped up to the plate with their sponsorship of YoungFeds, a social networking site for young federal employees.
Other companies are working with software vendors like Communispace to create targeted and/or by invitation-only community sites as part of their overall marketing strategies.
While business social networking hasn’t demonstrated the same degree of success as consumer-space networking, there are still players expanding their services and new ones entering the market. Among the sites targeting business people are Blue Chip Expert, Jigsaw, LinkedIn and Spoke. LinkedIn has turned cash flow positive due to its subscription model that offers free and fee services on a tiered pricing basis. According to eCommerce Times, Hoovers has partnered with Visible Path to enter this space with a new service called Hoovers Connect.
Riding the trend
Given the growth of social networks, you need to take steps to make sure that you don’t miss out on opportunities or fail to capitalize on this Internet trend.
• Explore business social networks for potential leads, job opportunities, or general networking.
• Evaluate whether to advertise or sponsor content on an existing social networking site.
• Visit and monitor sites like Cyworld and Second Life to learn how businesses are creating virtual product launches or showcases.
• Create your own social networking features to serve your existing stakeholders.
Whatever you do, be sure to stay on top of this Web 2.0 trend because it, much like others we’ve reviewed in this column, will have a big impact on your business and personal life.
Previous articles by Paul Gibler
• Paul Gibler: Lights, cameras, action: The state of online video
• Paul Gibler: Joining the wiki wacki world
• Paul Gibler: Would you like your music (and data) mashed?
• Paul Gibler: Cutting through the blog fog
• Paul Gibler: No RSS feed? You’re fired!
• Paul Gibler: Social computing in the Web 2.0 era
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.