Pros and Cons for businesses building on Facebook or Ning

Bruce WilsonYesterday David Spinks and I exchanged blog posts and comments inspired by his post about 6 ways businesses are using Ning as a social network provider for their online communities.

In my post I hinted that a private label / white label social network might be a better choice for a business-0riented online community than 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. In his comment to my post David asked, in part, “Seeing as how Ning is so popular, couldn’t it … be an advantage to have access to their userbase?”

First the pros: businesses can certainly benefit from partnering with a strong social networking brand like Ning or Facebook. This is especially true of Facebook which has extremely high levels of adoption and trust and vast numbers of regular users.

  • When people recognize a trusted network partner they may be more likely to join.
  • Because more people are already participating in the larger network new arrivals are more likely to find friends to interact with.
  • When people are already logging in to Ning, or Facebook, or another service every day or so, its just super easy for them to join, then regularly participate in, new pages or communities.
  • I’m a big fan of the SaaS (“software as a service”) model wherein both writing and hosting of web software is handed over to people who’s job it is to perfect the user interface, maintain security, and keep everything running as smoothly as possible, 24 x 7 x 365. Then the business’s official job is just to administer the site, while the community does it’s thing by populating the network with their interactions.

The cons in my mind are a bit darker and more old-school corporate sounding. The hard question is: who “owns” the relationship from the business side? This has implications for both customer satisfaction, as in “who is responsible for (owns) making sure that the customer experience is positive?” It also has implications for revenue, as in “who benefits from (owns) revenue generated via sales and advertising?”

On the relationship side I can imagine a number of potential problems.

  • User experience: what if a network provider suddenly limits or eliminates a popular feature, as Facebook periodically does, or regularly fails to keep the service up and running, as Twitter is somewhat infamous for?
  • Branding: what if the social network partner is embroiled in a scandal, as Facebook was recently, or starts promoting a competitor of the business through advertising or integrated partnership?
  • Data portability: what if the networking partner goes out of business or is purchased by a competitor?

On the revenue side, a social network partner may restrict access to customer data in ways that a business feels prevents them from generating legitimate new revenue opportunities. For example, Facebook restricts businesses’ ability to hold contests and send event invitations. Or a network partner may superimpose its own revenue opportunities over a business’s own interest, as when Facebook ads and other UI elements draw users away from a business’s own messages and calls to action.

But there are many people who know the world-wide Ning community much better than I do. Do you think the benefit of a Ning partnership usually outweighs the potential downside?

I’m also not all that familiar with the white label / private label alternatives (some of which I mentioned yesterday). Do these overcome, or fall victim to, the same potential pitfalls?

Private Social Networks Are Taking Off

Bruce WilsonThis afternoon I followed a tweet to a beautiful blog post by Scribnia‘s David Sprinks on 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, 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.

Different people prefer connecting to you via different social media

Bruce WilsonI periodically point out to new customers that just having a blog and/or an email newsletter will inconvenience or even exclude a bunch of folks. Different people prefer to receive information in different formats.

By way of analogy, music used to be published on both LPs (these big grooved vinyl disc thingies, for those too young to remember) and CDs. Now music is (mostly) available via CD as well as download (like the iTunes store) and streaming (like

The same multi-format concept applies to publishing marketing messages about your company. Obviously, if you limit yourself to handing out printed brochures at your place of business not many people are going to get your messages.

Back to blogs and email: yes, these are fabulous ways to communicate and very convenient for quite a few recipients. However, many customers (and potential customers) have never heard of RSS (a neat way to subscribe to blogs which for some reason a lot of people have never heard of…as I explained to a frequently tweeting client yesterday). Many don’t bother to bookmark blogs, or won’t visit the bookmark. And plenty don’t want to give out their email address, or wouldn’t read an email newsletter if you sent it to them.

But a good number of these folks will joyfully “subscribe” to your messages on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, if you give them the opportunity. That’s where they live, that’s where they are comfortable, and they’ll give you permission to post messages to their streams there. To underline the point: 325 million people are now using Facebook. I have reason to believe that some people use Facebook instead of email, as in, they don’t have email and when they want to communicate online, it’s Facebook or nothing. The added benefit of Facebook and Twitter, of course, is that when people respond to your messages (unlike when they reply to your email or comment on their blog) their social circles may hear about it also.

Whatever hailing frequencies you use, the same basic rules apply: Don’t spam the stream, which is to say, keep the frequency of posts reasonable. And don’t sell-sell-sell unless that’s what people want from you (in other words, if you do nothing but pitch your product, they know in advance that they are subscribing to get notified about discounts, new products, etc.).

The good news for companies on a budget is that a legitimate minimalist approach is available. You can simply update the blog, then send out notifications (intro paragraph plus link to blog post) via email (your email newsletter can really be nothing more an email subscription to your blog), Facebook / LinkedIn updates, and a Twitter tweet (same). Is this ideal? Not really. Does it get most of the job done with minimal effort? Yup.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, for the better funded organizations of the world with the budget to pursue the full ROI of social media, you can give your customers your own dedicated software applications for communicating with you. Today I went to a lunch presentation by a company called Perlego that offers technology for quickly branding your organization’s very own smart phone application, including variants for virtually every type of smart phone (iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile, etc.). Perlego wants every one of your smart phone wielding customers to carry your company’s application around in their pockets all day, giving them their own personal hotline to your messaging (I envision the US and Soviet Presidents and their “red telephone” hotline to one another). I didn’t see a demo so I don’t know how well Perlego’s applications work, but their concept does illustrate the idea of packaging messages in the format that’s most accessible for your customer.

The bad news for the “send it and forget it” (“SIAFI”) oriented marketing folks out there is that there is a price to be paid for the privilege of having social media as a communications channel. Your company now has to monitor social media for feedback from your customers, then respond when necessary to acknowledge compliments, resolve complaints, etc.

Worse news for the SIAFI crowd is that you can’t get out of your obligation to monitor social media and respond by simply ignoring social media. Your customers (and potential customers) are talking about you whether you are paying attention or not. As of reading this you are now officially on notice that when you aren’t paying attention it’s your bad. (Case in point: I just reached out to a potential customer who is building quite an impressive backlog of complaints on Yelp that they don’t seem to be aware of, yet.)

The good news is that you can easily and inexpensively monitor and respond to your customers using social media. It only takes some time and ongoing attention. So go for it. And let me know if you need any help. I’m always happy to discuss your situation with you even if hiring me isn’t currently one of your budget items. The easiest way to get my attention would be by leaving a comment just below….

Metrics show huge jump in social media use

A couple of studies came across my screen yesterday.

First, the Nielsen Company announced last week that internet users spent 17% of their internet time on social media sites in August 2009, three times as much as a year earlier.

Second, Forrester Media reported last month that 4 of 5 adults now use social media, a 46% increase over a year earlier.

What this means is that the customers of most organizations are using social media in large numbers. Thus organizations of all sizes should be examining whether and how to use social media to reach out to their customers online.

Social media surpasses record labels promoting classical music

I think cello is one of the most beautiful musical instruments. But I was surprised to discover that a “solo” cello player, by which I mean someone not connected with an “established” orchestra or other classical music institution, playing her own (beautiful but unconventional) compositions, has achieved financial success and enormous popularity in large part owing to her online marketing. Granted, Zoe Keating is very talented—but most of us have known extremely talented artists who have managed, somehow, to escape widespread recognition.

In Zoe Keating’s case, in addition to a blog and an impressive number of videos on YouTube, she has over a million followers on Twitter who have helped propel sales of her recordings into the top ranks of classical music on Apple’s iTunes music store. And all this without benefit of a record label. She’s not only making a living off of her music (mostly from downloads but also from gigs recording commercials and film scores), but is besting competitors’ cumulative millions of dollars of marketing budgets in the process.

Interestingly, she says she spends half of her time on business administration, and half creating product (music), a balance that many solo business people ultimately discover. She cautions that it took her a long time to get to this point, and that the key quality of online marketing is to “be yourself” and speak candidly as if to a few friends rather than pitching a product to a huge audience.

See her interview here and perform here.


Do your customers like each other? They can form a social network

I worked on a “white-label” social network startup a few years ago which almost but didn’t quite get off the ground. So I was happy to see that someone else succeeded where I failed: Stribe. Are you the center of your customers’ world? Maybe you are their “Cheers” bar, or their 3rd place coffee shop, or they’re crafters and your’re their craft shop, you are their favorite getaway, or many of the folks who take yoga classes at your establishment go out together afterwards? For a modest cost you can do them all a big favor by becoming their virtual social network as well. And, oh yes, you’ll deepen your connection with them also.

(via MG Siegler/TechCrunch)

Customers want to affiliate with brands online

According to a recent survey by Anderson Analytics, “52% of social network users had become a fan or follower of a company or brand”. So a majority of people using sites like Facebook and Myspace are proud enough of their relationship with a company to announce it to the world and thereby endorse the brand to their friends and co-workers.

In addition, “46% had said something good about a brand or company on a social networking Website—double the percentage who had said something negative (23%).”