Where’s Your Social Life Headed?

Once upon a time, sites amassed audience by giving away free email accounts. Now that penetration on that front is probably around 500 percent, the new way to achieve critical mass is (or perhaps, was) to build a social network and wait for them to come.

You’d almost think the number one Internet activity was social networking (or other forms of social computing). If you did, you’d almost be right. ComScore Media Metrix reports MySpace.com saw 51.4 million visitors in May, while YouTube.com nearly doubled its traffic in four weeks’ time to hit 12.6 million visitors last month.

Sustainable growth? Ha!

When you get right down to it, a lot of what the Web has always been about is social networking. It’s really not that different from the concept of “community.” Hasn’t the Internet always been about connecting people across space and time by interest and affinity, whether through bulletin boards, chat rooms, job sites, or online dating?

What’s different now are a lot more bells and whistles than you found on a BB c. 1998 — and that mass audience, which has the potential to attract massive advertising. As Topix.net’s Chris Tolles recently remarked, “I think it costs a million dollars now to be on the home page of MySpace, which nobody looks at.”

Agencies and advertisers are dazzled by MySpace and its ilk, and not without reason. MySpace’s traffic grew a jaw-dropping 367 percent last year, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Organic’s CEO Mark Kingdon just took a look at a number of campaigns on the site. Meanwhile, NBC, in an abrupt about face, just partnered with YouTube, a company against which it had threatened litigation just a few short weeks ago.

Things sure change fast in this space, don’t they?

All Tomorrow’s Social Networks

Six months ago, we were still writing about campaigns on Friendster. You do remember Friendster, don’t you? Limping along with a relatively paltry 27 million visitors, it’s been totally eclipsed by upstarts MySpace and YouTube.

“I think the reason Friendster died is that lack of niche,” Jon Gibs told me. Jon, who heads media analytics at Nielsen//NetRatings, was pointing out that MySpace started as a destination for indie music (a fact I’d wholly forgotten). “MySpace has still maintained that young, hip and independent attitude. One of the goals of social networking is relevant content and the relative branding around it.”

Jon believes MySpace may now lack direction and an editorial voice. “We’ve seen their growth numbers have flattened, but that’s not a surprise. No one can maintain that level of growth.”

There are more social networks out there than you can shake a stick at, like these and these. New ones are springing up literally every day. In the video space, YouTube is hardly alone. Are you familiar with Dailymotion.com, Metacafe.com, vidiLife.com, Veoh.com, AOL’s UnCut and Guba.com?

Then, there are the vertical plays. The kid niche is growing fast. Joining the ever-popular Neopets are Habbo Hotel, Imbee.com, GoPets, and MyDaze.com. Their moms have networks of their own, like gotkidsnetwork.com and MommyBuzz.com. Famoodle.com is for the entire extended family. Real estate has seen a flurry of recent launches, including Sporzoo.com, CribYourSpace.com, and ActiveRain.com. There are social networks centered on business, books, food, music, every sport you can think of, cars, dogs, cosmetic surgery and mental health.

My favorite (this week) is ChristianVibes.com because when I checked out the site, featured on the homepage was “sexnician,” a member who’s eager “to treat a girl right and have great freaky sex.” OK, so it’s in beta.

How fast are these things launching? Most of the plays cited above have launched within the past two week. Two days ago, two executives from two self-professed “YouTube killers” collided in our reception area. Each was here for a briefing with a different ClickZ editor.

Advertising on Social Networks – The Long View

If you’re looking to target teens and young adults, there’s no question MySpace and the like are the places to be…now. But remember Friendster? And white-hot-for-a-minute Orkut? Teens are a fickle bunch. If these sites become too commoditized, overpopulated by uncoolness or adults, or if something niftier comes along, there’s no cost and no consequence to moving on.

Over 61 percent of teens have visited a social network, according to a Burst Media study, and two-thirds of those have also joined a site. Yet they couldn’t be a more disloyal audience. Think movies, fashion, restaurants, music. This is a demographic driven by fads.

Social networks will also evolve with life stages. Today’s Facebook member will join MySpace next year, just as her younger brother graduates from NeoPets into something more age-appropriate. MySpace members will join the workforce, and subsequently Ryze, or LinkedIn, or Soflow.

That’s why social networks are nichifying. Once you’re out of school and into a job, you won’t have time to spend serious time on more than one or two networks. Jon Gibs agrees, adding, “You’ll have a much more engaged set of eyeballs on those sites, and a much more advertiser-friendly environment.”

And you’d be nuts to believe the major portals aren’t going to get deeper into this game. With plays like Yahoo’s 360, MSN’s Spaces and AOL’s Red Blogs and Digg-clone Netscape, they’re seriously experimenting on the edges of the space, and these are companies that know how to sell advertising and monetize content.

“The portals are going to start applying these in a much deeper way,” agrees Gibs, “to, say, Yahoo Finance or their fantasy sports offering.”

Your social life will be anything but dull over the coming year. Promise.

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