Private Social Networks Are Taking Off

Bruce WilsonThis afternoon I followed a tweet to a beautiful blog post by Scribnia‘s David Sprinks on Mashable.com. David writes succinctly about (and provides lush screen captures illustrating) six visually appealing examples of how companies are using Ning social networks.

Although I want to add a couple of thoughts of my own about businesses building their own social networks, first a shout-out to David for his piece. His examples include a customer community for Seesmic (one of the leading Twitter client applications); a community for the mothers of US Navy sailors; a community for people who own or are otherwise interested in Saturn automobiles; a community for encouraging women to start their own businesses (sponsored by Martha Stewart); a community of travel bloggers; and a community for holiday bakers who want to exchange cookies (sponsored by Hersheys).

Although some of the same social networking functionality can be delivered by Facebook business pages and Twitter-based conversations, David’s piece makes it clear that there is still plenty of room for niche social networking sites.

I’m especially excited to see companies that have gotten so much traction–and customization–at Ning because about three years ago I helped found a startup focused on building a private label online social networking platform. David’s Ning examples, while beautifully and uniquely branded, are not true private label social networks because they still are hosted with Ning URLs, like xxxxxx.ning.com, and people must have a Ning account to participate. Fully white label solutions do exist now, including Social Go, RealityDigital, and Stribe. While at the moment they lack the name recognition of Ning, they appear to have big customers nonetheless.

Although the startup I helped found ultimately failed to get off the ground, a key insight we achieved is that almost every business has a group of loyal customers who could bond or have already bonded around their contact with that company. Examples we examined included:

  • Neighborhood Starbucks (and other cafe) customers identify with their local “third place” and frequently form friendships with fellow regulars. Special events and offers, like coffee tastings and new merchandise, could be organized and advertised via the social network.
  • Retailers with inspired customer bases like Nordstrom–which already has special invitation-only events during hours they are not usually open to reward extra special customers–can use a social network to allow customers to revel in their pride of relationship with that retailer and spread news and photos of products, events, and specials with their friends and family.
  • Health clubs can offer ways for customers to learn of schedule updates, news, special offers, and (between interested customers) opportunities for customer interaction.
  • Motorcycle sellers (and sellers of other high-affinity products, similar to Saturn) can offer not only company and product news but opportunities for riders to set up rides and other events together.
  • Alumni organizations can offer a dedicated school and classmates connection experience, not filtered through an intermediary like Facebook, Classmates, or LinkedIn and optimize it for the mutual goal of supporting the educational institution itself.

If you haven’t already, once again I recommend checking out David’s post, he really has an eye for web design and it’s worth checking out his post just for the graphics alone. Then think about how your business can leverage this approach to improve customer satisfaction and engagement.

3 Replies to “Private Social Networks Are Taking Off”

  1. Thank you for the very kind words Bruce. Really glad you found the post valuable.

    Wondering about your point about people having to have a ning account to participate in ning networks. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Seeing as how Ning is so popular, couldn’t it not be an advantage to have access to their userbase?

    David
    Community Manager, Scribnia.com
    @DavidSpinks

    1. David: you’re welcome. I love it when people succinctly nail complex ideas.

      Your question is well taken. I did hint that a private label / white label social network might be preferable to a Ning network, even with beautiful customization. And by extension this reasoning could apply to Facebook business pages and applications and other social network providers.

      The short version of my response is: there are potential pros and cons of having your own network versus partnering with a social network. (I started to explain my thinking here, but it got complex enough to merit its own blog post.)

      In all honesty I’m not familiar enough with Ning to know specifically which pros and cons might apply to it-if you have the time and the interest I’d appreciate the benefit of your expertise on this point!

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