Should You Launch Your Own Social Network?
Niche social networks are on the rise, leading many business owners to consider whether a branded social network might be right for their businesses.
Unlike general social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, branded networks are generally created to enable groups of users to connect and communicate about specific topics relating to their businesses and industries. Some examples of branded social networks include the Web site Shelfari.com for book lovers; Journalism.co.uk for U.K.-based journalists; and automaker Saturn's ImSaturn for drivers and enthusiasts.
But do the benefits of launching your own niche social network outweigh the investment of time and money? And what do businesses need to consider?
Creating your own social network could improve your branding, increase site "stickiness" (people spending more time on your Web site), promote customer feedback, and give you the ability to gather and share business intelligence. But creating a communication platform for your community may not be so easy to setup and maintain. If your company is thinking about a branded network, consider the following factors before making a final decision.
Get Active Users
First, you should have a critical mass of users before even considering building a social network. We've all seen Web sites with forum pages that are practically empty. This is because they don't have enough users to generate a conversation. The same goes with social networks: You need a significant group of "active" users to make it an exciting proposition. You may have many users but if they are "passive" users it means they are not motivated to engage in the community.
To get active users, you need to offer a rich platform for discussion and interaction and hit upon themes that interest your community. This means reaching beyond the topics of your products and brand to include discussions about your entire area of business and how it relates to the world at large.
Get the Software
Once you are sure that you have a compelling concept for attracting a community of users, it's time to move on to the technical part of the equation. There are a handful of social networking software providers such as Ning and ONEsite that offer a wide range of products, such as profile systems and plug-ins for photos, video, chat, blogging, events, groups, and classifieds, to name a few.
In general, basic software plug-ins are not very expensive; in fact, many providers offer free trials and one-user licenses (meaning for a single Web site) for a few hundred dollars. However, the cost of setting up the software may be much more expensive. And if you're looking for an entire Web 2.0 platform with all the bells and whistles seamlessly incorporated, this can run you thousands of dollars. Some providers charge a large setup fee, plus a monthly fee just for using their wares. However, you can cut costs by signing up for a revenue-sharing plan with your provider or by including ads.
Once you have the software worked out, you will want to do some redesigning to incorporate the new networking features into your site. Installing and setting up your software and integrating it into your site will take some time and money, particularly if you have to hire a programmer. Of course, if you have the technical expertise on staff, it is possible to buy affordable social networking plug-ins and redesign the site yourself for cheap.
Engage Your Community
Once you're up and running, remember to engage. Network with your community, write blog posts, and venture onto other networks to share information and connect. You want to be proactive about creating new content and giving users reasons to revisit your site.
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