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Online “Social Networking” for grown-ups? August 1, 2007

Posted by Bernard Lunn in B2B Media, Online Advertising, social networks.
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Unless you have been meditating in a cave in the Himalayas, the hype about Facebook has probably come to your attention. A 23 year old turning down a $1 billion offer has a certain ring to it.

What about those of us who are paying for the kids who are using MySpace or Facebook? Is it possible for traditional B2B Media firms to make money from creating community sites?

I have heard the complaint that “it is easy enough to build the sandbox and people do come and play, but how do I make money from their play?” This is a tough question. In a real operational business, any project has to meet stringent hurdles for Return On Capital. There is not the luxury that some start ups have of just building traffic and then later figuring out how to make money. However the investment required is not great and, if there is money to be made, it is almost certain that some start-up will be looking at doing it in your market; so ignoring the question is not a serious option.

I see two big positives and two big issues (that may be negatives or maybe resolvable). First the two positives:

  • Positive # 1. The cost of entry is low. Setting up a site is inexpensive and traffic does build virally if you build good features.
  • Positive # 2. Users who contribute, share, comment, communicate are more loyal (aka “sticky” or “engaged”) than people who only read.

The two big issues:

  • Issue # 1. These are not environments for grown-ups doing business. Do you want your readers hanging out in a place that looks like this? (Actually this is my brother in law and he is a really good wholesome guy, but you get the point). This is pretty easy to fix, it is really just a style/design issue.
  • Issue # 2. CPM rates and click-throughs are low. This is OK if you have 30 million users (Facebook) but not if you have a controlled circulation audience around 50,000. You need every one of your community to count. They are important, influential people and not college kids with budgets for books and beer, so the potential is there but the $ per person must be way higher.

Google makes tons of money because they create a “database of intentions“. When you search for something you reveal your interest. This is not true in social networks. You don’t even have context to help target the advertising. This is like selling advertising on email systems. You are too consumed with writing or reading email to look at ads and if the provider serves ads that are based on what you are writing your privacy is invaded.

There is a possible direction for this that does make sense for B2B Media which tackles both big issues. First, lets drop the term “Social Networking”. Your readers (to use a terribly old-fashioned term) are not interested in dating (at least they don’t equate your brands with dating). They use your sites for “research”. Which is rather more than Search. (Re)Search is what we do after Search.

The best Research data comes from your community. If you build a “Research Network” (as opposed to a “Social Network”) that enables this to happen you will deliver value to your community and you may be able to create a “database of intentions” that can be monetized.

There is an excellent book called Wikinomics, How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything that I am currently half way through. I recommend it to anybody who thinks this is a passing fad for teenagers. There are complex issues to think through related to editorial control and the authentication of posters. In niche B2B markets, the totally open model of Wikipedia is unlikely to be ideal. A more balanced approach, between total editorial control and total open model will need to evolve.

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