Five things to consider when deciding whether or not to create a social network around your brand.
Any website where the users can talk about themselves, or about particular subjects, and where the content is organized by user and subject matter is a variation on the social network theme. Social networks are incredibly popular and drive huge amounts of traffic, but the challenge we’ve seen is that when users are on social networks, they don’t tend to click on ads or buy products. They’re there to socialize and don’t seem to be very responsive to other offers.
The good news is that these sites are cheap to run and they can be a good source of branding, of driving traffic back to your Internet hub and helping to build your email newsletter file. They’re not going to generate tons of clicks, but because because your users supply most of the content, they can be relatively inexpensive to run.
Is your brand ready to let go? Remember, the control that you think you have over your brand is merely an illusion. People are already talking about your brand. Your focus should be to collect your brand evangelists into one place.
Would a social network appeal to your target audience? If your audience is struggling to get online as it is, perhaps a social network won’t be a big traffic generator. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging technology, but make sure they’ve conquered email first.
What will make your social network different? There are tons of social networks popping up right now. Do your research and see who your competitors will be. How will your social network offer more than those already in existence? Mother Earth News for example has a photo-sharing community. They encourage users to submit photos to be voted on by editors, while they also allow users to have their own photoblog. The retail portion of this community allows users to buy photos submitted by Mother Earth News.
Are you ready to hire a Community Manager? Starting a social network shouldn’t be something you dabble in. Having no one on your social network is more embarrassing than not having one at all. A community manager interacts with users in forums, leaves comments for newcomers, and encourages activity in your network. They might send a weekly email to users letting them know what new topics have come up, or visit other social networks and invite newbies back to yours.
Do your users need to connect on an ongoing basis? One of the most important things to consider when thinking about building a social network is whether there is a need for it. Do your readers have a need to socialize on an on-going basis. Cook’s Illustrated has a forum for cooking enthusiasts, which remains pretty active; this is a good example of a need for an ongoing conversation. The crafting magazine Make: lets users contribute locations of art and craft stores as well as plotting themselves on a map in their Maker’s Directory. They also have a Tools-N-Tips section where users write their own product reviews. This makes for great blog fodder, plus gets repurposed in their email newsletter.
If a social network still fits your agenda after all of this, there are popular free ad-supported models of social networks such as Ning and KickApps to get you started. However, in order to generate your own ad-revenue you’ll want to build your social network on your own domain. There will be costs associated with either of these services. There are also more detailed reviews of each in this article by TechCrunch: Nine Ways to Build Your Own Social Network.