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Ever considered building your own social network?

Author's avatar By Danyl Bosomworth 04 Nov, 2011
Essential Essential topic

Manchester United show the way

I posted last week about Facebook and their (I feel) vastly over-stating of the value of Facebook as a part of the marketing mix.

Now, this week I read that Manchester United are building their own, not-so-small social network for an estimated 350m supporters and a total estimated global audience of 660m!

A perfect strategy for Man U since they're already mega publishers of content - through the print magazine and MUTV content and of course their website. The traffic to their site will be huge given their global appeal, the advantages of being a global brand of course, yet fascinating how they're now appending the 'social' to the already existing 'media', the cart following the horse, as it should be. Can you imagine them successfully limiting their reach and interactions just to  Facebook? Not really.

I don't believe that this customer community strategy is limited to global brands like Man U, though. My time at i-to-i with TUI Travel several years ago saw us launch two very successful niche social networks in 2007 and this one - Chalkboard in early 2009.

Advantages of creating your own social network or customer community

We learnt that there are multiple advantages of developing your own social networking 'presence' and you don't need an audience of 660m to make it worthwhile:

  • Scale: It's not about developing large, complicated networks, though there are serious off the shelf services like Ning, of course, with multiple OpenSource options like Community Engine and PHPFox, 100% free outside of the design and set-up, I'd avoid agencies or contractors selling proprietary solutions as that locks all your equity (see the points below) to one vendor. Remember that communities can also start with $100 forum software or even with no content but a real purpose such as interactive Q&A platforms and even crowd-souricng tools such as UserVoice. It depends on your objectives, and budget.
  • Content: The real beauty of an active community is that users are generating and sharing content on your behalf, an ever growing bank of valuable content that won't sound like crafted brand communications, but under your brand umbrella. Your job is to nurture that network, invest in it and ensure people are getting value.
  • Reach: Shared content generates inbound links. Relevant dialogue and a growing repository of rich content will also serve as link bait for a network of influencers in your market. Run contests and promotions to bring the community to life.
  • Insight: Customer data and insight is so crucial in today's age. If you own a popular network then you've the potential to interweave an ongoing programme of market research, valuable not only to you, but others. How about leveraging that as advantage when it comes down to product development insight? You'll see more than anyone else what interests your consumer.
  • Income: Though not a core objective early on, you're building a monetisable asset for the future. From onsite advertising, to brand sponsorship and of course product development, the right way around.

Let's not under-estimate the importance of integration with social networks like Facebook though - a walled garden in 2011 is not the point! As with a blog based site there's a lot of opportunity to integrate through Facebook comments and using social sign-on as Dave showed with this example of Sears Social.

With increasing discussion around 'vertical' social networks, networks based on niche passions and specialist content areas, how can you apply this strategy to your niche or market? It's not an easy strategy, yet if you're prepared to start small, scale and invest over time, it could be very viable. Ask yourself:

  • What do my customers love or get excited by?
  • What do they worry about?
  • What unmet (content) needs do they have?
  • What is my brand’s relationship to those three things?

Once you know what kinds of conversations your consumers and fans are having, you can find a niche that allows you facilitate those conversations, even if your brand itself is always on the periphery.

Author's avatar

By Danyl Bosomworth

Dan helped to co-found Smart Insights in 2010 and acted as Marketing Director until leaving in November 2014 to focus on his other role as Managing Director of First 10 Digital. His experience spans brand development and digital marketing, with roles both agency and client side for nearly 20 years. Creative, passionate and focussed, his goal is on commercial success whilst increasing brand equity through effective integration and remembering that marketing is about real people. Dan's interests and recent experience span digital strategy, social media, and eCRM. You can learn more about Dan's background here Linked In.

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