One of the things I spend quite a bit of my time doing is helping clients and prospects understand the difference between a “regular” website and a social network. I spend a lot of my time arguing in favour of “social media”, in the belief that a social media approach is at the heart of what we call “Web 2.0” and is closer to how humans naturally function in “real life”.
I wrote a version of what follows for a prospective client today, and I have reshaped it a little for my blog. Whether or not you’re considering building the next MySpace, YouTube or Flickr, I encourage you to “immerse” yourself for a few moments in what I describe below, so you can perhaps come to a deeper understanding of how the web’s move towards a more deeply immersive “social” experience is a reflection of our innate relationality, and therefore in keeping with how we naturally function, and therefore a good thing.
What is a Social Network?
A social network sees user-contributed content as its major asset, along with the committed user-base itself. It assumes a fundamental premise: that people want to express themselves to others, want to see/experience the reaction of others, and want feedback.
A social network trades in the currency of human relationships and sees its product offering as a means of allowing humans to relate richly, online.
So, flickr.com enables the user-contribution of photographic images, and facilitates the cultivation of human relationships (both agnostic and antagonistic) around this contributed content.
Similarly, Amazon.com enables the user-contribution of (mainly) book reviews, wishlists, recommendations and the like… and facilitates the cultivation of human relationships around this contributed content.
Now, it would not be hard to create a site that sells books, or lets people upload and catalogue photos. The difference here is that the site owners do not look at the asset as, say, the books (or book sales), but rather as the size of the committed user-base, and the size, breadth, consistency and frequency of their contributions/interactions.
MySpace sold for hundreds of millions, and did so (to the best of my knowledge) without any other direct revenue stream except banner ad sales. But News Ltd wisely saw the “asset” for what it was: committed, active, engaged users making regular, substantial and measurable contibutions of content (of one kind or another). And much of this content is, by its nature, relational: a comment under a blog post, a “flame” in a forum thread, a rating beside a picture, the addition of another user as a “friend”, etcetera.
So then, we do not look at a social network through the “lens” of a spreadsheet of product sales, nor as a series of webpages held together by hyperlinks, but as a living and active, growing/shrinking social organism made up of “content contributors” who are going about the business of building relationships with each other while gaining much satisfaction from talking a lot about themselves and their lives(!) and “putting something of themselves out there” — whatever that is.
At the base of it all, the fundamental “asset” in a social network is: partly the volume of user-contributed content, partly the number of users, partly the rate of acquisition of new users, partly the “rate of activity” of the user-base. The same “equation”, phrased as questions, would read:
- How much stuff have our users put on the site?
- How many people are here and participating?
- How frequently are people bringing their friends here?
- How much time do our users spend here and how much stuff do they add while they’re here?
Generating revenue from a social network starts with the low-hanging fruit: banner ad sales. But there is no end to what can be “sold”. It’s about getting creative. If you can prove large volumes of committed, contributing users that match a given target market, you’ll succeed at bringing the advertisers/vendors in.
I strongly suggest you have a look at the various forms and expressions of social media that are out there. As you do, ask yourself:
- How much of what I see was put there by the owners of the site, and how much was put there by a user?
- What can the user do on this site?
- How can people connect with each other on this site?
- What feature/s did I see on this site that I immediately loved?
- What was so compeling about the feature/s I loved?
Thinking Socially About Your Blog
Let’s talk about your blog for a moment. Where is the user-contributed content? Yes… in the comments. How else do you see readers express “commitment” to your blog? Yes… in the readership, especially RSS subscriptions.
How else does the blogosphere express at least a passing interest in your blog? Yes… links! And remember this. Write it in indellible ink on the back of your hand if you have to:
The lowest common denominator of “social currency” on the internet is the hyperlink. It is the connector from one page to another, sure, but in Web 2.0 and the Relational Web, it is recognised as the first expression of relationship. It’s like that first furtive glance across the room from that handsome boy… it may come to nothing, or, you may end up married with 9 kids, a dog and a goldfish called Sam. All that potential in a link.
Have you noticed what’s happened from the 2000 Bloggers initiative? There are now 2000 bloggers out there (myself included) who are seeing interesting domains popping up on their referrer logs, as some curious blog visitor clicks on their picture from who-know-what-blog and ends up on their blog, tripping the “invisible wire” of their stats program. We’re clicking through to see what that blog is all about, and to see our picture there…
We’re seeing the incoming link and we’re irresistibly drawn to click over there to see who’s linking to us and why. And the wise among us never despise small beginnings, knowing what big (B.A.D. even!) things can emerge from the humble beginnings of a simple link.
So what can a blogger learn from the approach of the social networks?
Here are some quick thoughts:
- Links are only valuable because people click on them. But they are valuable because people DO click on them. Google, Technorati and other services rank your site largely (or exclusively) according to the number of inbound links pointing to your site from other sites on the web. This ranking approach assumes (rightly) that a link is either/both an expression of interest in your site, or a vote of confidence in it. So get thee links, and yea verily… a great multitude thereof!
- Comment numbers are a more accurate measure of your success than the number of visitors you receive. Put another way, the more people you have on your site (or blog) making a substantial contribution, the greater your success. A comment is a higher level of contribution than a visit; simple. Think about this: if you have a sequence of front-page Digg stories, but no increase in the number of comments left on your posts, you’ll be able to boast of a massive increase in traffic, but will you actually have advanced? Will the asset-value of your blog have increased?
Do you function in the blogosphere in a relationally wise and sensitive manner? We all know what road rage is, and some of us have been closer than others to the receiving-end of a road rage attack. Well, I want to suggest that there is such a thing as Blog Rage. I have seen it quite a bit lately. One guy over here mouths off in a blog post. Then this guy over here gets hacked off and vomits a spew of vitriol back over the fence. And both posts are full of comments with more froth and bubble but little substance. And the real villain is probably an overabundance of testosterone combined with too many hours of inactivity sitting in a chair blogging!
So I say this… try something different. Be polite, be considerate, be thoughtful, go out of your way to help a D-lister, not just looking for opportunities to comment on an A-lister’s site. Credit a newbie blogger when they write something impressive (and many do). Comment on other’s posts for reasons beyond just securing a link back to your site. And when you post, admit what you don’t know and invite other to add to your knowledge base in the comments.
- Finally, building relationships is about trust. So determine to become an expert on how trust works online. People will trust you when you are credible, consistent, considerate and cooperative. They will trust you when they see other people trusting you. And people who trust you are the people who make up your loyal readership, so NEVER do anything that kills trust. Some of the tactics out there for growing a blog fast — or making fast money out of it — might fall into the category of trust-killers.
Optimizing the Relational Web
Succeeding in the Web 2.0 world of social media is different from succeeding in the “old” Web 1.0 world, and has given rise to the acronym SMO (Social Media Optimization). This is in contrast to the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) companies and consultants who arose thanks to the dominance of search engines as a means of connecting people to content. Now, more and more, people are connecting people to content.
If ever Google ceases to be the main means by which people find stuff on the internet, it will not be because a better search engine comes along. It will be because the Social Web has evolved to the point where people are consistently and reliably the most effective referrers and recommenders. And the MySpaces, the discussion forums, the referral services, the taging engines and the like… these are the precursors of the next big thing. I daren’t call it Web 3.0 or any other label, but it will be a much more deeply relational (read: social) web, where SEO is all but dead because the “old fashioned” search engine is all but dead.
A web that is much more relational will be a web that rewards “good social behaviour”; that ranks blogs and bloggers more sophisticatedly than by the number of their inbound links, but by the full gamut of “social indicators”. And cheating on these won’t get you anywhere.
So I conclude with a warning: If you don’t know how to relate well, you won’t be there. Blog Ragers will be prosecuted!