Your Site Shouldn’t Have a Social Network

I had a great time this afternoon doing an hour long consulting session with some young European entrepreneurs who were considering adding a social network to a popular local niche content site they had recently acquired. I advised them not to do so, but that advice was tongue in cheek.

I suggested that instead of adding a social network to their site, they should just add rich user profile pages, site-mail (user-to-user messaging) and the ability for users to track each other’s content. Add personal publishing to this list (their site already offered this) and what have you got? All the useful traits of a social network, without the Yet Another Social Network baggage.

Social networks have caught on for a reason – they offer functionality that’s very useful for a lot of people in many different communities of interest. That said, everyone is wary of copy-cat, roach-motel, me-too social networks. Why not have your cake and eat it too? By framing the extension of your existing site as just that, an extension of your existing users’ profile capabilities, instead of as a social network launch – you can make everyone happy and maintain your dignity.

It’s a big, big world out there and there are far more people who will find social networks useful in the future than there are people who are using them already today. That said, just as no one can launch an online video startup today without most people asking “why do I need this when there’s YouTube?” – so too is offering a social network a dangerous proposition, even if there’s ample need for more of them.

Serving power networkers

I am guessing that the people most likely to roll their eyes at a new social network are people who are already familiar with the genre and who are already using other networks. These are a relatively small number of people compared to the total number that a niche social network aims to serve. They are vocal and energetic though and it’s important to have them on your side.

One of the easiest ways to serve these people is to allow them to populate their profile on your site with information they are already inputing into other sites around the web. RSS allows you to do this dynamically. Ask them for their user names on other networks and display their most recent activity there on your site. See MyBlogLog, Tumblr and Wink for good examples of this strategy in action. No one has taken it as far as it could logically be taken, though.

White label options

You could build your own social networking functionality for your site, but chances are that’s not your area of expertise. In that case, you may want to let someone else do that for you. Check out KickApps, CollectiveX, Elgg, PeopleAggregator and the TechCrunch list of white label social network vendors. Try out Ning, it’s high profile and has plenty of resources to invest in improving, but I think the usability there is awful so far.

Look for customizability in a white label social network. This includes aesthetic customizability, as the look of your pages is extremely important to the user experience. Make it easy for users to access and populate. Ask any vendor you look at about portability of user data – chances are no one will give you a satisfactory answer but someday you’ll be able to tell your prospective users that any energy they spend populating their profiles on your site will be easily transferable if they chose to leave. OpenID and unobtrusive email confirmation are other key considerations that can help reduce friction in adoption.

There are enough white label social network options on the market that it should be a buyer’s market and vendors should be innovating rapidly to serve user needs and differentiate themselves.

Those are some of my thoughts about offering social network functionality on top of existing sites and services. It’s a good idea, users in active communities will appreciate it. It will increase pageviews, user investment and site utility – but it won’t turn an inactive community into an active one. That’s another matter altogether.