Social Networks: My Place or Yours?

Long, long ago, that is during the ’90s and earlier in this decade, you didn’t need to visit everyone. They came to you. They had information they wanted you to see or discussions they wanted to bring to you. They were modest about expending your time.

Since then, however, they have gotten egotistic and want you to spend your time with them. They expect you to be part of their network rather than they becoming part of yours.

Would you have such people as friends?

What if they were special interest groups, trade association, clubs, or corporations? Would you still keep them as friends if they expected you to spend your time with them rather than they coming to you?

Social networks are the rage.

Consumers, employees, and group members are using MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, and other network tools providers to create their own social networks. Yet businesses and other organizations are using Ning and other private network tool providers to build private social networks that they expect their consumers, employees, and group members to join.

That’s counterproductive. Businesses and other organizations should deliver their services via the social networks their consumers, employees, and members already use, rather than expect those people to visit them.

Corporations and other organizations should ask to become part of their consumers’, members’, and employees’ social networks instead of expecting the reverse. This is particularly true because of how power has been shifting online from companies to consumers.

Moreover, expecting people to join the social networks of corporations and other organizations places the burden on those people, which isn’t a service.

Let’s say you’re attending a seminar and its organizers have created a Ning site and they ask attendees to use it. Or you belong to a business trade association that has shut down its e-mail listserv and asked its members to use its Web site’s discussion boards. Or you’ve joined a bicycling club whose ride schedule isn’t sent to you but requires you to access it by entering a password on the club’s Web site. So it goes with another half dozen other business or personal interest groups to which you belong.

In earlier years, those groups might have sent you that information by e-mail, but they now expect you to visit their sites and social networks and retrieve the information. Will you use all these groups less because they each require that of you? For most people, the answer will be yes.

Here’s an anecdotal example. For more than a dozen years, I regularly took part in an online discussion managed by the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank and midcareer training institute. The discussion was held via an e-mail listserv. At its height, the listserv had some 3,300 subscribers, of which a few hundred were active discussants. But then Poynter decided to switch the discussion from a listserv to chat boards on its Web site; those chat boards never became as popular.

Switching from a listserv to its own social network might have seemed like a great idea for Poynter; it wants more traffic on its site. However, the move was counterproductive for its members, generating extra steps for them. Getting the discussion postings in e-mail was convenient for people because they check their e-mail daily. But they don’t want to remember or take the extra step to visit the site daily. I don’t have time for that. So I stopped participating in Poynter’s discussions.

Businesses and other organizations that create their own social networks and expect people to visit them are forgetting that people online are no longer captive audiences. Consumers no longer have scarce access to information or few places in which to discuss topics that interest them.

Consumers nowadays rightly expect businesses and special interest groups will come to them rather than let themselves be herded into the social networks of corporation, trade associations, clubs, and special interest groups.

Because control is shifting online from companies to consumers, it’s time for corporations, trade associations, clubs, and special interest groups to start fitting into consumers’ social networks rather than those organizations building their own. It’s time for companies to stop expecting consumers to come to them and instead time for them to go to consumers.

If you work for a business that’s building its own social network, you must instead build applications that fit into the consumers’ own social networks, such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, and the like, and ideally all of them at once.

Although social networks are all the rage, don’t fall victim to the “my baby” syndrome. You might think your company’s new social network is so beautiful that it will attract everybody, but the fact is everybody is on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, LinkedIn, and other public networks. You should be, too.

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