The Web Gets More Social

You might say they’re the big thing next to blogs, only it didn’t take 10 years for them to take off. Social networks emerged from obscurity in about 2003 and have since become a household activity (at least, in the household’s teen’s room).

You’re probably familiar with the usual suspects, as well as some of the new comers to the scene: Friendster, Yahoo 360°, Facebook, hi5, and MySpace, which was the fourth most visited domain in the U.S. in December 2005, according to Hitwise. Offering the ability to meet new friends and connect with existing ones, blog, and share photos, these sites have become a major online force for teens and college students.

Though typically founded by either young adults or reputable media conglomerates, the social networking industry is also attracting the attention of some fresh new players. On February 1, pop-singer-turned-TV-star Nick Lachey helped launch a social networking site that he cofounded, aimed at teens aged 13 to 18. It’s called YFly.

According to reports, Lachey’s objective is to “positively impact” the online world by creating a safe place for teens to chat and network. The site is designed to “shut out online dangers,” such as cyber stalkers. It also includes mobile capabilities that allow members to connect with their online network of friends through text messaging.

Commendable concept, but I fear successfully competing with established players already familiar to YFly’s target audience could be a challenge. Perhaps that’s why some equally savvy entrepreneurs are taking the idea of social networking beyond the teen bracket.

In April, the Web will welcome, a multichannel media and lifestyle company that will celebrate “girlfriendships” among moms, wives, homeowners, and professionals. Founded by numerous media executives, including Allie Savarino, former SVP of rich media company Unicast, the Sisterwoman site will also incorporate a mobile technology component and even extend to branded offline content. The company intends to publish cookbooks, coffee table books, photo albums, and greeting cards featuring both original and user-generated content.

“Certainly, the market activity around social networks influenced our decision to launch Sisterwoman as an online community,” says cofounder Savarino. “But more important than the example our colleagues in this space have set is the instinctual behavior of our audience. Women have an innate desire to communicate and contribute.”

Like other social networks, the site will offer members the opportunity to choose the degree to which they wish to interact with others. “Closed circles” offer them a private space within which to converse, while “open circles,” which are hobby- and location-based, facilitate participation in group forums. “Regardless of which [users] choose to participate in,” Savarino notes, “they will enjoy what they’ve asked for: message boards/chat; photo and video sharing; email; posting and sharing content; merchandising; and scheduling/invitations.”

Advertising with social networks has always been a hit-or-miss prospect. Some offer banner placements and sponsorship opportunities, others rebuff traditional ad units and formats. If YFly accepts advertising, for example, it’s not yet openly displaying its offerings. Visitors to the “For Advertisers” page are directed to a generic online form.

Then there’s the issue of how ads that do appear on social networks will be received. Because most sites cater to the jaded, marketing-savvy Generation Y and, like blogs, are communities intended to host sincere conversations, ads that overtly push products and services are often spurned.

With an older audience and some unique opportunities, Sisterwoman hopes to avoid this pitfall altogether. The site will feature rectangular video and rich media ad units. Advertisers will also be able to sponsor open circles (essentially, the equivalent of content channels) and live chats relating to such subjects as cooking, weight loss, and finance.

“Advertisers get a couple of key things,” Savarino says. “They have the opportunity to reach highly engaged women within a community these women label as ‘one of the most important in their lives’ (on a scale of 1-10, they rate the value of their ‘girlfriendships’ at 9.54). Second, they will enjoy an uncluttered advertising environment. With one exception, all pages have a single 300 x 250 ad unit, and all sponsorship opportunities are equally exclusive.”

As admirable and exciting new social networking ventures continue to surface, the ease with which advertisers can incorporate them into their media plans will certainly improve. This industry has only begun to grow. I look forward to determining how best to utilize these properties for the sake of members and marketers alike.

Meet Tessa at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.

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