Creating a social network for insights

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Photo courtesy of ewen and donabel via Flickr

Photo courtesy of ewen and donabel via Flickr

I’ve proposed here before that starting your own social network from scratch for public outreach is a bad idea for most companies and brands. Unless your niche is so tiny that there’s no active community discussing it online, you’ll likely be perceived as trying to control or redirect the conversation rather than participate in it. That niche would have to be really, really tiny not to already be thriving somewhere on the social Web; at a conference last year, someone asked me if there’s a blog about automotive adhesives. Of course there is! If that’s your business, you’re better off starting out by commenting on that blog and getting to know its readers than by launching something on your own right away.

But what if you want to create a private social network for gaining insights from a group of influential bloggers in a particular space, or from a group of customers or potential customers interested in a particular product? If some of those options sound more like market research than public relations, there are indeed commonalities. But maybe focus-group style market research isn’t an option for you in this economy, or you want to create a network to test out content before you deploy it elsewhere, or you simply want to try collaborating and sharing ideas with coworkers via a social network. Catharine P. Taylor at MediaPost’s Social Media Insider blog argued last week that social media is replacing focus groups altogether.

Several services have cropped up in the past few years for these purposes. The best-known and most popular of those is Ning. Co-founded by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, the service allows you to create your own social network for free with a wide range of functionalities like blogs, discussion groups and personal profiles. Saturn and Samsung have both used it to create publicly viewable consumer networks that serve as great case studies in social media for public outreach. Making a network private and only viewable to approved participants is also an option.

Athena von Oech, vice president of community management at Ning, tells me that 920,000 Ning networks have been created since the service’s launch in 2005, with more than 3,000 new ones created every day. Many educators have created Ning networks to facilitate discussion in their classes. Also, unlike Facebook, Ning does not claim ownership of the content you create on your network. “We only receive a limited license to content so that we can make it available for you and other members on the Ning platform,” von Oech says. That’s a factor if you plan to create a private network for the purpose of discussing ideas for your business that could become proprietary. (Facebook’s claim of content ownership is fairly unusual amongst social networks; Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr and MySpace all treat content as belonging to its creators in their terms of service).

Another option for creating private networks for market research is Communispace. The company drew attention in 2007 when it created a network for users of the Alli weight-loss drug on behalf of its creator, GlaxoSmithKline. The Communispace service includes the recruitment of community members; people of a certain demographic, or users of a specific product, for example. That’s a big advantage over free services like Ning, but it comes at a price. A sales assistant at Communispace informed me that “a 12-month community with 300 people typically costs in the $350,000-$400,000 range inclusive of all services and the estimated recruiting costs.”

What kind of insights could you derive from a private social network that could help your business?

Tags : social media

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