Media and Publishing: New Social Tools Worth Noting

A couple of weeks ago, following the announcements about the shuttering of Condé Nast’s “Gourmet,” along with five other properties in the past year, Ad Age gave credit to Meredith Publishing for its adoption of a digital strategy in comparison with Condé Nast’s relative lack of one. In this column, I’ll discuss tools I’ve had the opportunity to work with recently, with a particular focus on publishing and media.

As a disclosure, I worked with Meredith Publishing in 2005 and 2006 on the development of its digital strategy. Meredith, building around the efforts of Senior Social Media Manager Laura Pinneke (formerly with Target) has implemented solutions across 20 magazine properties built primarily on the Pluck platform. In addition — put this under the “no sleep for the weary” heading — the publisher continues to evaluate and implement other tools from companies such as Ripple6 and Lithium.

Since its acquisition by Demand Media, Pluck has added some great new capabilities to its already strong platform. Customers — in this case, publishers — can offer core capabilities such as persona-based accounts with blogs, photo sharing, and the usual functions. This is now combined with newer features such as floating personas; hover over the author or commenter on a post and that person’s mini-profile will appear. Another feature: the ability to create extensions (widgets) using a variety of external software development languages including not just JavaScript, but also PHP, C#, and more. This gives Pluck clients, like, a powerful range of options for designing and implementing a social media application platform that encourages member interaction and participation.

Around the corner from Pluck in my hometown of Austin, TX, is Powered. It provides a publisher’s platform as well: take a look at iVillage, for example, and its iLearn community. It’s full of the kinds of activities that bind active families (moms, in particular) to the online community. This element was missing in the case of “Gourmet.” While an exceptional print product, as online continues to press its relevance into the daily lives of media consumers (think smart handsets and netbooks here), the lack of a participative, digital expression for a media property is a strike against it, if not a guaranteed “out.” Kudos to iVillage for building this capability into its platform.

MTV’s Latin American programs have recently launched on another platform I’ve been involved with since 2005. Based in Buenos Aires, Looppa provides a community platform with a unique feature that’s important when “sub-communities” are a part of the design and business requirements. Consider the language, location, and cultural issues around multinational community implementations: Looppa provides a built-in community integration that connects distinct communities through a larger Web across multiple properties. This provides an intimate experience inside the smaller communities — think Facebook groups here — while still wrapping the entire experience in a larger platform and community. MTV’s Guarida Azul, launched at the end of September, has quickly broken the 100,000 registered member mark with strong participation and content sharing, based on the use of Looppa tools.

I was talking with Belo Interactive President Dave Ellett (former CEO of Powered) last week about Blastoff, an affiliate program launched about two months ago. As an innovation point, Dave noted that Blastoff is potentially useful for publishers on multiple fronts. I’ve included it here because it’s a great example on two distinct points. First, Blastoff offers some well thought out hooks for publishers: news and information channels, advertising opportunities that lead into the affiliate mall, and an in-road into a new online demographic for Belo in particular. Second, it’s an example of innovative thinking that’s required to stay ahead. What do a newspaper publisher and an affiliate marketer have in common? Offhand, I don’t know, but I do know this: Dave Ellett will dig in and figure it out, and Belo will beat its competitors to the punch as a result. Dave works hard to convert what he finds into a competitive advantage in the context of his business. That’s a best practice worth noting.

Tying the above together is one of the strategic points offered by blogger Jeff Jarvis: “Take yourself to them.” In the case of Powered’s iVillage and Belo’s look at Blastoff, for example, the publishers are taking the content that they have and moving it out to where there customers are. This is an essential practice when building powerful social applications.

In simple terms, it comes down to “fishing where the fish are” rather than simply hoping they’ll decide to hang around your boat. (They won’t.) A strong Web presence is a building block, but by itself, isn’t sufficient for marketing (online) to highly connected customers. A community built around your brand might be part of the answer, but your brand is generally not enough. The smart (and too often missing) aspect is to add the social applications available through, for example, the Pluck platform, and then tie them into Facebook and Twitter. Alternately, build around the connected communities built on Looppa or the integrated content offered by Powered. In the end, there are a number of ways to create an engaging experience. Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Define your digital strategy. It’s no longer an option. Include participative elements and avoid building another purely outbound “social” channel.
  2. Look for the points of participation: your focus should be on creating a participative platform and clearly establishing the end user policies. Install curation tools (for example, Bazaarvoice, and let your end users judge the content as they identify and share “quality” with each other.
  3. Pay attention to what is getting voted up versus voted down, and move in the direction of “up.” Within your organization, take the specific steps required to convert a “top-down, we’ll do the talking” orientation into something more “customer-driven, we’re all here to learn and serve.”

Combine these basic points with continuous learning and experimentation to bring new technology into the planning process today and you’re on your way. As a publisher, that’s got to have a pleasant ring to it.

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