Should Brands Join or Build Social Networks? (results from an informal survey)

Friday on Twitter I posed the question, should brands join existing social networks (like Facebook, MySpace, etc) or build their own social network (like these many white label tools)?

I asked my Twitter network: “Should brands Join or Build their own Social Networks?”
Here’s the tally from the many responses:

  • Join 10
  • Build 5
  • Both 10
  • Mixed reactions, unsure, or need more info 6
  • Within minutes of posting the question to Twitter (an early adopter social media crowd) yielded 31 responses, many which came in to my email account. It’s very clear the responses are all over the map, the market needs clarity.

    In the last segment, some folks chose to ask questions or suggest that it depends on the situation, so I lumped them into one response group. Although just a small informal sample of the social media elite (Most Twitter users are early adopters) that the responses are dispersed.

    I’ve started a discussion in the Web Strategy Group in Facebook (I choose Join instead of Build) where you can further the conversation. I look forward to your thoughts over there, a place where you can network with others (4300 of them that care about web strategy) and where you can control the topics rather than reading me over and over. If you’re a vendor from either camp, kindly identify that in your response and continue to build trust by demonstrating your knowledge and helpfulness.

    • I really have mixed feelings on this one. Yet another social network? I’d have to say that unless they have a compelling reason to build a social network with enough community members to justify it, it’s not worth the effort.

    • Thanks Geoff

      There are already thousands of brands that have already created their own social networks. From Microsoft, Dell, Lego, Oracle, Intuit, Wal-Mart, Carnival, Big Brothers club, Infoworld –the list goes on.

    • Yes, I am aware of these. But how active are all of these? Not everyone will have Dell’s interactivty (nor do they have as many customers as Dell). And can small to medium enterprises expect the same results?

    • I’ll second Geoff’s viewpoint. Building another ‘social network platform’ may not be the key solution to whatever their cause for building one is. But building a social network, through something like ning for example, is so easy and I don’t really see too much opportunity cost in building one and maintaining one.

      I’m trying to think about the real reasons a fan of a brand would join a social network. If the technology is provided (i.e a social network which allows interaction with others) along with some tools to give the brand-fans the ABILITY to create mashups etc., then I could see the power of social networks being leveraged by a brand. An example could be a company like Dreyers which can allow people to create visual mashups of an icecream bowl, such as the ability to add hersheys syrup, macademia nuts, and even add in ketchup if they want. To be able to create things like that yourself, see the nutrition information change with added ingredients, and to see others’ creations would be a reason I would use a social network. But again its really about the timing. I need to have that motivation to actually reach out to others or that my laptop is open and I can easily access this. Maybe I want to check out a brand and have relevant offers from the brand evaluated by others, but that’s something more along the lines of a forum.

      This makes me think about social networks then from the Dreyers’ perspective. Do I just want to see what others are doing, or really reach out to them? Is what I describe then just a more high-tech forum with widgets and such? Maybe if some person is noted for their cool creations and people vote on it or something, then I may want to really reach out to that person and discuss Dreyers and other brands as well because by now I think this person has good taste in ice cream, so she may also in other things.

      Now I’m feeling like I’d want to reach other people like this person I met for even other brand categories, from cars to phones to what not. I’m hoping I can assemble a little online crew that I can talk to all my consumerism needs about. Say it all goes well and smoothe, then the next thing you know, we’re talking about our life philosophy and how these brands fit into our lives, our budgets and what not.

      I’ll try to end this comment now because I notice it getting long. Red Cross on facebook pages has about 40k fans, all of which can message each other. To me that’s good enough of a social network. And also they can add in 3rd party apps, so Dreyers could do something along the lines of what I said. Brands really need to think about how they are relevant to their brand-fans’ life, and allow themselves to be modified to the extent of appealing to their fans’ lives without having them to do too much. Because when it comes down to it, social networks are about relationships, and I’m willing to have a brand as my friend, as long as it’s honest to me and doesn’t hide its inherent weaknesses thereby creating some vulnerability and a more humane touch, as opposed to infallible corporate websites smiling at you incessantly, emanating an aura of perfection.

    • Friends,

      Don’t forget to check out where else this conversation has expanded to:

      http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?topic=4062&post=17598&uid=2591582686#post17598

      More opinions in the Facebook group!

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    • Join…

      It takes a huge amount of time and resources to build from scratch. Piggybacking off an existing user base is much more realistic in my mind.

      Cheers,
      Aidan
      http://www.MappingTheWeb.com

    • The fact is that most companies DO need to build their own.

      Social Networking is a great way for businesses to let their customers interact and gain visibility that was previously impossible just a few years ago.

      Piggyback doesn’t work well for business because they want a Social Network that promotes their brand and is not part of some bigger network. I’m surprised that even some of the self-serve Social Network creators make each site such a part of the whole service that it is obvious you are just another network on some big network service. Businesses don’t really like that.

      There will always be room for a few really big networks, but there are many which have a purpose that is compelling to only those who really are part of the community.

    • Don’t forget to go to the Web Strategy Group and join the discussion of this topic here:

      http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=2591582686&topic=4062

    • I must have missed this thread on Twitter, but I tend to think that joining an existing network makes more sense for most brands.

      While some brands (mainly those who already have a large degree of brand loyalty and customer evangelists) can have success building their own social networks, I don’t think this is true for most brands.

      For most brands, it makes more sense and is easier to go where the customers (or potential customers) are than to try and convince them to come to the brand. This also shows an effort by the part of the brand–We’re coming to you, rather than hoping that you’ll come to us–which can help build trust.

    • I liken joining an existing socnet as getting a seat at someone else’s table, whereas building your own is likened to creating your own table and inviting people to join you.

      It’s not an either/or, but a both/and at this point. Having said that, I do think a company would have to have a very compelling reason to create their own. Yet, I think the day will come when we see manifold numbers of niche-specific networks.

      Of course, you’ve got to have enough active participants (the 1 percenters) to make it viable. Nothing is worse than inviting a bunch of people to a party and only a handful show up.

    • well people are forgetting that social networks don’t have to be a standalone site. coke doesn’t need to build cokefans.com as a separate site (just using the first brand that came to mind). so why not build the tools for the users to interact on your site, but also provide those tools on facebook or myspace or wherever. don’t expect users to come to your site anymore, they are already somewhere, so go to them.

    • isn’t that kind of the same question as: should brands print their own magazines, should they build their own post delivery service, their own telephone system … kind of.

      use the platforms where the people are, that they trust and stay with your core competence: your product. who would watch a tv channel that is made by a tissue brand? thats what i used to say.

      recently there is one reported to be rather successful in .de which is run by dove, a cosmetics brand: http://www.proage-netzwerk.de/ well, success here seems to mean a few thousend women that have left the mainstream target groups due to age are channeled into a specific community. very few bothered with marketing bla, but provided with a vertical information and discussion plattform building up image for the brand.

      so it seems to work to some extend in cases within growing and late adopting online demographics, that did not find a home in a mainstream plattform yet. which is great, but probably the exception of the rule.

    • I say both. Social architectures are on their way to becoming pervasive. In a few year’s time it will feel strange to have a stand alone application without a buddy list.

      There are many reasons why a company would chose to leverage existing networks and/or create new ones. It depends on the objectives and strategy of the corporation.

    • I actually answered Jeremiah’s twitter about this, here’s what I had to say, please tell me where I’m right/wrong.

      Should brands build or join?

      Business objectives and consumer target markets really should answer this question. It’s impossible for one brand to host the entire conversation within one walled garden – for most of our clients, we work to build some mechanism for stimuli/response in their playground, where they feel comfortable, and build/setup technology to monitor outside dialogue. For our youth targeted clients, we certainly don’t recommend our clients to enter such a saturated market by building their own – however, we can leverage the critical mass of these networks to our advantage, facebook fan pages, applications, widgets, badges, etc. For SMB or C-level audiences, there’s more that we can do in terms of building and capturing market share – but we also argue for niche audience groups to encourage higher levels of participation and more valuable feedback.

      I can only honestly recommend building when we have a client with an extremely unique approach or we have an incredibly innovative idea – which in the realm of mass innovation and destruction – comes few and far between. I would also say that most of our clients aren’t prepared to take on the task of builders and maintainers – they need to learn to be good listeners and good conversationalists first.

    • Interesting and timely survey. I recently got kicked off Facebook for creating a profile for Dummies Man, a character that represents a series of books published by my company. We did the profile as a lark, not quite a social experiment, but it brings up some interesting questions about what our expectations were for him to interact with other FB members. Would I want to have a burger thrown at me by the Burger King? Get a drink sent to me by Spuds McKenzie? Or would I like to have a real interaction with someone who can fully and transparently represent these brands?

      For now, the Dummies Man is on FB under my name (Ellen Gerstein) in addition to the account I already have, lending to a great identity crisis. I’m not sure I will keep DM active, but it is kind of fun to join Dummies fan groups and throw Dummies books at people. I wonder how long it will take FB before they find a monitize profiles like this and billing marketers who want to create them.

      BTW, I am really enjoying reading your blog.

      Ellen Gerstein
      Director of Marketing, John Wiley & Sons
      confessionsofanitgirl.com

    • i think everyone wants to be both anonymous and at home sometimes. we like partying but also quiet night in. communities are human and human nature will govern them

      in effect this whole phenomenon we are experiencing with this blog + comments is proving the point. its not either/or. its both.

      jeremiah is a brand. there are people here joining the talk. there are people that chose not to because its not their style/ fit. he essentially has his own community.

      he belongs though to another community on facebook.

      here i feel im at jeremiahs living room or neighboorhood cafe, at facebook i feel like in a public place…impersonal like a mall.

      if the answer was either or we’d all be in one place…

    • tracy

      thanks for this great metaphor, you’re always welcome here.

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    • I'll second Geoff's viewpoint. Building another 'social network platform' may not be the key solution to whatever their cause for building one is. But building a social network, through something like ning for example, is so easy and I don't really see too much opportunity cost in building one and maintaining one.

      I'm trying to think about the real reasons a fan of a brand would join a social network. If the technology is provided (i.e a social network which allows interaction with others) along with some tools to give the brand-fans the ABILITY to create mashups etc., then I could see the power of social networks being leveraged by a brand. An example could be a company like Dreyers which can allow people to create visual mashups of an icecream bowl, such as the ability to add hersheys syrup, macademia nuts, and even add in ketchup if they want. To be able to create things like that yourself, see the nutrition information change with added ingredients, and to see others' creations would be a reason I would use a social network. But again its really about the timing. I need to have that motivation to actually reach out to others or that my laptop is open and I can easily access this. Maybe I want to check out a brand and have relevant offers from the brand evaluated by others, but that's something more along the lines of a forum.

      This makes me think about social networks then from the Dreyers' perspective. Do I just want to see what others are doing, or really reach out to them? Is what I describe then just a more high-tech forum with widgets and such? Maybe if some person is noted for their cool creations and people vote on it or something, then I may want to really reach out to that person and discuss Dreyers and other brands as well because by now I think this person has good taste in ice cream, so she may also in other things.

      Now I'm feeling like I'd want to reach other people like this person I met for even other brand categories, from cars to phones to what not. I'm hoping I can assemble a little online crew that I can talk to all my consumerism needs about. Say it all goes well and smoothe, then the next thing you know, we're talking about our life philosophy and how these brands fit into our lives, our budgets and what not.

      I'll try to end this comment now because I notice it getting long. Red Cross on facebook pages has about 40k fans, all of which can message each other. To me that's good enough of a social network. And also they can add in 3rd party apps, so Dreyers could do something along the lines of what I said. Brands really need to think about how they are relevant to their brand-fans' life, and allow themselves to be modified to the extent of appealing to their fans' lives without having them to do too much. Because when it comes down to it, social networks are about relationships, and I'm willing to have a brand as my friend, as long as it's honest to me and doesn't hide its inherent weaknesses thereby creating some vulnerability and a more humane touch, as opposed to infallible corporate websites smiling at you incessantly, emanating an aura of perfection.