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What Are Friends For?

  |  February 6, 2004   |  Comments

Getting in with the in crowd. Social networks are hot. Does that make them a marketing opportunity?

My disinclination toward activities like college reunions may explain why curiosity drives me to create accounts on social networks such as Friendster, Tribe.net, Ryze, LinkedIn, and Spoke.com. Then, being busy (and frankly, not all that interested), I tend to ignore invitations to join online social networks of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, even total strangers.

Until two weeks ago. Invitations to join and link were coming in fast enough to create a nagging awareness. Then, Orkut launched.

Just how cool is a Google-affiliated social network? More to the point, how cool do you have to be to get past its invitation-only velvet rope? Well. The day it launched (and for a few days thereafter), work came to a shrieking halt. The office turned into a cyber-"Heathers." The need to be in -- and to get in -- was all anyone talked about.

I was in with the in crowd bright and early (thanks, Danny) and threw out a couple of random invites to colleagues to join my network to see how things worked. Before I knew it, calls were coming in (some from time zones that should have still been sleeping). They ranged from profound gratitude for the invitation (how did you get in?) to abject begging (can you get me in? please?). Coworkers were soon looming over my desk: "X invited me to join after you invited him. So why'd you invite him and not me? How did you get in, anyway?"

Within hours, auctions for Orkut invitations were live on eBay. The blogosphere was Orkut-obsessed. The backlash, inevitably, kicked in with equal dispatch: How will Google use all this data? Is it really an evil marketing scheme? The terms and conditions were scary. Xeni Jardin found, to great collective horror, there was no way to opt out once you'd joined (that's now fixed).

A couple days after launch, Orkut ranked as one of the Web's top 500 sites.

Where Eyeballs Go, Marketers Follow

The Google brand gave Orkut lots of fast traction, but it's only one of over 100 online social networks. Many are growing fast. Marketers selling everything from consumer packaged goods to business-to-business (B2B) products and services are trying to figure out how to use them, sometimes with the networks' help.

What some consider the next big thing in online marketing is really an amalgam of stuff Web users and marketers are already versed in: search, community, testimonials, classifieds, bulletin boards, listservs, chat, viral marketing, targeting, lead generation, referral, affinity, personal pages -- and privacy issues.

I asked some of the leading services what makes their social networks different and what the marketing implications are. (Only Google's eponymous Orkut Buyukkokten didn't get back to me. Consolation prize: As a friend-of-a-friend, I scored a "personal" invite to his launch/birthday party tonight.)

Tickle is about "you and your people," says Steven Comfort, VP of sales and marketing. "The idea is to lock people down into a network. If you have 40 people in your circle, you won't leave." Formerly eMode, which offered a very viral palette of personality and other online tests, the service has evolved to include dating, social network, hobbies, and relationships (with tests in every sector). Ads on Tickle can be targeted by registration data, but marketers can also commission custom tests that promote their brands.

"It's a combination of brand experience and data capture, almost an extension of a company's research department," explained Comfort. He hastens to point out these are "fluffy, fun, super-viral" tests, not the more serious variety developed by an in-house staff of social science Ph.D.s.

Locking members down is the last thing Tribe CEO Mark Pincus wants. Tribe's aim is to help you find a plumber, roommate, or used car through its network. "We fall somewhere between Friendster and craigslist. We're trying to build the next generation of online classifieds by building a trusted marketplace, explains Pincus. "We're more about leveraging your various affinities [affinity groups are termed "tribes"]. The whole business of the Internet is qualified leads. Google's business is selling qualified leads. So is craigslist's."

In addition to one-on-one recommendations and classifieds, Tribe staff helps marketers develop word-of-mouth and grassroots campaigns. "We'd like marketers to start to create fan clubs around products, services, and marketing campaigns. Palm Computing has a new campaign coming up, and they'd like us to create a community around the campaign, so they contacted us. It'll take more work and creativity than just putting up content. If you're hosting a community around your product or service, it's an ongoing relationship with a captive audience. There may already be a community around something you're doing, and you don't even know it."

"My business is not about hosting your social network, but listings," Pincus says. Tribe supports the open standard in social networking, FOAF. The end result will be an encrypted XML file of your network, to go. "I need people to link externally. I'm trying to build a business like eBay, where people leverage trust networks in order to transact with each other."

This, Pincus believes, is the future not only of social networking but also of e-commerce. He sees a world where FOAF creates a high-enough degree of disintermediation to render behemoths such as Amazon and eBay obsolete.

The B2B social networks can be as polarized as the more business-to-consumer (B2C) counterparts, such as Tribe and Tickle. Ryze founder Adrian Scott describes his network as an opportunity to "build relationships before you need them, with a focus on business." Ryze's groups and networks tend toward the professional: lots of IT folks, work-at-home moms, and a recent surge of professionals in India.

"There are opportunities here for significant marketing results and simple ways to get started," Scott told me. "We offer network-level creation. We can build a private network [for owners of a specific product, for example]." Has the company every licensed its technology for private-label use? Yes, it even offers the technology as a product.

Spoke, an enterprise social networking application, is a social network as a product (rather than as a medium). Sold as a sales tool, Spoke sucks up Outlook contacts, enterprise-wide, and shares them with the network. "It's lead generation by correlating leads and suspects within the company," explains marketing VP Chris Tolles.

"We provide marketing people with the ability to get to people; get invited to an event, send a newsletter, etc.," says Tolles. "We give people an estimate of how well they know people. Personal relevancy rankings rank people as to how well you can get to them."

Rankings are based on analyses of Outlook email traffic. Other tools include address book updates and reminders to contact people you haven't been in touch with for a while. On the enterprise level, search can be whitelisted by keyword and keyword phrase (so a recruiter at a competitor, for example, won't show up in the common database).

Spoke's B2B network is based on the philosophy that your contacts belong to your company. Rival LinkedIn is marketed to individuals, not enterprises, and takes the opposite stance. "People treat their Rolodex as their own personal asset," insists cofounder and marketing VP Konstantin Guericke. "We don't believe that everyone is someone you want to hear from. We don't believe business relationships are created online."

LinkedIn's site, which contains more than a few very well-known members, is bare-bones functional (no photos!) on purpose, explains Konstantin. "It's not fun, it's boring! You're reading people's resumes. If you mix the social, you tend to drive out the high end on the business side. There are no discussion groups, guest books, chat. Relationships that stand the test of time are people who you've worked with. The more senior you get, the more you worry about people having access to you. Some would say if Mark Andreessen didn't call them back, LinkedIn didn't work. As far as we're concerned, LinkedIn did work."

Thus far, no fun means no ads or marketing relationships, although LinkedIn is considering paid-placement search ads. Konstantin's statement, "People do gazillions of searches," is a sentiment echoed repeatedly by social-networking entrepreneurs (and doubtless the reasoning behind eurekster).

There's no marketing formula for social networks, and there may never be one. Some of the bigger networks have hired agencies to figure out how to soft-sell and stealth-market to friends and friends of friends. There will be experiments, and inevitable embarrassments à la Dr Pepper's blog debacle.

Orkut should take a look at its own offerings. Heck, it's been up for two weeks, so the coolness of being in is rapidly losing currency. Why not steal a page from American Express and add this tagline to my profile:

Member Since: 9:15 a.m., EST, January 22, 2004.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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