Focused on Social Networks? Attend Graphing Social Patterns

My main focus as an analyst is on online communities and social networks, if you’ve the same focus, I highly recommend you attend the Graphing Social Patterns conference, started by Dave McClure. The conferences runs deep into the developer discussions, as well as is blossoming with more and more business and marketing discussions. View my blog posts from previous events, including an interview with Dave.

This upcoming east coast version will have at least a few discussions focused on white label social networks, in fact, I’ve been asked to moderate the panel. I’m really looking forward to this focus on these important vendors, as there hasn’t been any conferences that have done a sole focus on the discussion of corporate communities in the context of these tools.

The upcoming GSP East (The West Coast conference was in San Diego a few weeks back) will be held in June 9-11, 2008 in the Washington, DC area, readers of this blog can register with a discount (Save 15% Use Code: gspe08fo). As a partner, attendees will receive a copy of one of my latest reports on “Online Community Best Practices” so please watch for that

I’m giving away 2 free tickets (valued at $1195, each)

Update: 12 hours later While I encourage additional comments, I”ll be selecting the winners from the first 24 comments. I simply don’t have enough bandwidth to compare and contrast all the great answers. The winners will be contacted and announced on this post.

O’Reilly has offered readers of this blog two tickets, during this week, going to select from the comments, simply answer the following question:

Where you think the future of White Label Social networks is headed over the next 5 years, and why you back up that prediction?

If you’re planning to leave a comment, but know you can’t attend the conference, please indicate so, so someone else who is interested in attending will benefit, thanks.

  • I don’t see much of a future in white label social networks – outside of work, folks will focus on existing platforms that continue to extend and enhance ‘group’ creation. There’s only so many online destinations folks will patronize regularly and it’s more efficient to congregate in one place with many hooks rather than to customize and disperse. Corporate environments will stick with Wikis, Sharepoint, etc.

  • Hmmmm….. I’m in DC and would like to go to GSP….

    Over the next 5 years White Label Social networks are going the way of AOL; crushed by a more inclusive framework. Social networks are not a “place” that can be walled in, white label or no. They are made up of individuals with shared interests or characteristics. The soylent green theory of social networks – the network is people.

    Since people have many different interests and characteristics they also belong to many different networks. People won’t tolerate, for long, having to belong to multiple platforms to identify with their special groups. The idea of “creating” or “owning” a network will quickly evaporate and be replaced by the concept of providing services to networks that are. These services – widgets, databases, content, perhaps facilitation & moderation – will create special, interest-specific value that people will be glad to engage with.

  • I think the whole concept of social networking is getting morphed into all websites. I see an explosion of corporate and consumer websites touting the social networking bandwagon. Just because a website has the so called social networking capabilities (blogs, wiki, podcast, twitter streams, facebook apps, etc.) does not make it a social networking site. Tools & services are only the means, but not the end. Today most of the tools / services are centered around providing social networking capabilities to your websites, but five years from now the best services will be the ones that can actually harness the power of “social intelligence” for practical business/consumer uses.

  • I have to agree with Dave Zatz’ comment above. I think *most* companies are better served by engaging their customers on existing networks rather than trying to draw some small portion of their audience to a white label service that duplicates functions of existing services.

    However, that’s not to say there is no market for white label services. I think they just have to be aware that a lot of the meaningful interaction is happening elsewhere and set expectations accordingly.

    If the white label service has hooks into the existing networks (i.e. publish things to/from Twitter or Facebook), then the two could co-exist and feed off of each other.

    I think lifestreaming apps or aggregators are examples of services that could be successfully white labeled since they are built on the understanding that users aren’t sharing things in just one place.

  • Kenan

    The number of communities built on white label social networks will grow significantly. There has already seen a lot of growth in platforms such as ning, PeopleAggregtor and CollectiveX.
    As the market grows, it will reach a consolidation point, where many of the innovators of today will be overtaken by the giants such as Google or Microsoft as the differences will become smaller. This trend is seen in many tech markets, but will take 3 or 4 years to occur. However at the same time other platforms and approaches become available and are used, so the definition of social network comes into play over the course of 5 years. For example, products like Google Friend Connect, can disrupt this growing market by widgetizing the social network component. Distributed Social Networks also come into play were everything is centered around the user, by using a unique identity such as OpenID. Luckily the web is large enough for all types of social networks to grow each filling their niche.

  • I have to agree that “white label” social networks do not seem to have an extremely bright future. So long as consumers and other end users know they can ‘feel free’ using existing social networks like Facebook, WL social networks will always be at a disadvantage.

    I also agree that companies absolutely need to focus their efforts on using existing social networks – so long as these efforts are transparent, consumers will start to view these companies as ‘socially-savvy’ – that’s a good thing!

    That said, the future for these networks isn’t all doom and gloom. These networks are also advantageous for consumers who feel particularly bonded to a particular company to receive a consistent, official source of information and to interact with like-minded people. Until other social networks are able to provide this type of detailed, company/product-specific interaction, white label networks will persist.

    For the time being, users aren’t sharing things in just one place – they’re looking across several sources to collect information, share challenges and successes.

  • Kenan

    As an end user, it is great to desire a single social network, such a Facebook, to be your one stop for everything. However most organizations are more than 5 years away from letting existing social network take over, and that is why white label social networks are so important. Privacy, Branding, Lock-in, and Control are some of the main issues. A white label SN makes it easy for companies to get value from a social network while still providing the organization control over how the site changes, looks, and who is using it. It may not be ideal for the user of multiple social networks but having different friends on different niche networks is common and data portability standards can help end users manage this.

  • These are all great comments thanks all.

  • JY

    White label nets will prosper as publishers seek to enhance engagement of their audience. So I see professional content being a valuable niche that wlsn can address, whether it is a sports team catering to fans or an “official” sn for a tv show where clever use of user content is incorporated into the show itself. This is the super niche where the eyeballs are worth it.

    Mapping the physical world to a wlsn may be another avenue because targeted advertising cpm for specific socialgraphics/demographics is worth it.

    The point is not all sn are equal so most wlsn will be useless but a few will generate a lot of value. I think the game is to place your bet on the right ones, not on wlsn(s) in general.

  • Ken

    White label social networks will continue to flourish over the next five years at least if anything just to “sucker” businesses in. Many businesses are now seeing social media as the gateway to reaching new markets and figure that the greatest thing since sliced bread is Myspace and when they hear that web 2.0 sites are offering white label social networks, they’re pouncing on the opportunity.

    So while many of the above comments make very good points, these WLSN are banking on companies and not the individuals. Yes, we’re all part of so many social networks (Bebo, Yelp, Myspace, Facebook, Friendster, Twitter, Mashable, etc.), so when we see a company’s website offering the chance for us to mix together and be “social”, is there a real reason for us to jump on it? The consumer is wise to this game. Businesses think it’s going to generate a good ROI when in fact they should probably be investing where their audience REALLY is – on the major social sites.

    And if businesses can’t offer anything different than a place for people to congregate, then what’s the point of having a WLSN? So white labels are going to be around for a little bit longer, but most companies will soon realize their buck is better spent on improving their service FIRST before spending it on technology they’re implementing on a whim.

    PS: I’m in DC and would LOVE to go to GSP! 🙂

  • The value of a white label social network is tied to the intended audience. A network for a closed affinity group will have more value than social networking features on a generic local business web site or large corporate site.

    A closed affinity can be the alumni of a college, fraternity, or corporation. It can be based on a shared experience or common interest. Managing the verification of the group info is a component of closed social networks. I really am an alumnus of Manhattanville College. Verifying that is a component of participating in their alumni network.

    White Label social networks can stand alone for these affinity groups *and* coexist and thrive within larger social sites like Facebook. People can belong to more than one club.

    In 5 years, there will be consolidation in this area. The remaining players will provide deep services to closed affinity groups and simple services to very small groups. Large corporations will be more interactive and engaged with customers through these tools, but it will be seen as a normal extension of their web sites and not a standalone community. Facebook and future large social sites will provide ties to these networks – small and large.

    Corporations that blur the line between products and affinity will be succcessful with social networks.

  • WLSN’s that are well run by their sponsoring organizations will continue to thrive independently of what larger platform wars take place in the next 5 years. What will continue to make these networks successful is the sponsoring organization’s commitment to empower their audience with simple tools and then listen & follow the communities that are started.

    Some good examples that back this up include (disclaimer—my company operates the Campbell’s site):

    http://www.sportsshooter.com/ – A network of sports photographers

    Campbell’s Soup: http://tinyurl.com/4so4ws and here is a profile of a participant that has been active in this community for 4 years: http://tinyurl.com/4roaov

    http://www.globalschoolnet.org/ – This is a vibrant online community for educators that has been around since the late 1980’s

    I’ve been building these networks/communities for over a dozen years and find that companies can leverage these networks for:

    Customer Support
    Brand affinity & loyalty
    Ideation activities
    Market Research

    I’d love to go to the event in DC

  • Robert Richman

    Here are three trends I believe we will see in the future of white label social networks:

    1. Ease of use will trump feature set

    Developers often believe that having more features is better than less (http://tinyurl.com/5mhdzl). And software consumers are known for wanting features that they will not use, often because the interface simply does not provide an elegant way to accommodate them all. This leads to bloated software, poor interface design, and buried content. Social networking platforms in the next five years will focus on core functionality (profiles), while including add-ons that support them in a downplayed way.

    EVIDENCE:

    Basecamp by 37things offers much simpler solutions to project management, democratizing what used to only be available to gantt heads. They go on to sell this ideology through seminars and their book (http://gettingreal.37signals.com/).

    Techies opt for Moleskines for notes, rather than complicated and cumbersome PDA solutions (http://tinyurl.com/6lkjou)

    Blogging platforms focus on posts above all else, and everything else in the sidebars.

    2. Value-adds make the difference

    When social networks become a commodity, technology will not create the leading edge. It will be people and marketing. The big questions are 1) will people actually use your site? and 2) how will people know about it?. Therefore, the white label companies that provide add-on services such as SEO optimization, outsourced community management, pre-loaded content based on industry, and built-in customer support functionality will ultimately prevail.

    EVIDENCE:

    The book “Four Hour Work Week” shows how everything can be outsourced

    http://www.getsatisfaction.com shows the power of people-powered customer service

    3. Game functionality will be built into the platforms

    Gaming elements are already within the successful social networks. Concepts such as collecting, points, leaders, feedback are built into facebook, myspace, flickr and many others. Games make an activity fun, put something at stake, and encourage repeat use. The white label social networking platforms will include options to give points based on activity that the site owner wants to reward, the ability to give members rankings (both manually and automatically), and the power to open up exclusive areas of the site for power users.

    EVIDENCE:
    Amy Jo Kim’s presentation on gaming dynamics in applications and social networks (http://tinyurl.com/6cxbcn)

    Thank you for the great contest. I really hope to join you in Washington!!!

  • I think what we think of as social networks today, especially white label stuff (like elgg) will be radically different from what we see in 5 years.

    5 years from now the “social network” stuff we think of now (friends, groups, messaging), will all be rolled into ALL enterprise software and all kinds of collaboration software. companies will deploy them on all their intranets (my guess is 37s will have a big intranet/extranet offering that leverages this).

    There will be a decent market for these self-hosted or hosted options, much like we see forum software today. The real winners will be tools that tie into more potent stuff (enterprise management tools), and are flexible (modular design, install only the features you need). I also think we will see a growth in wordpress.org style socNets, where anyone can grow their own local copy, and in 2013 these individual networks will all interoperate (Foaf, XFN, DiSO, etc.).

    p.s. I would LOVE to go to GSP, just need a free ticket 🙂

  • For public social networks, the “white-label” space is due for shakeout and consolidation. All you had to do was browse the “vendor” floor at Community 2.0 a few weeks back and see the clustering of 5-6 different platforms with overlapping feature sets and minor tweaks on un-tried busiess models (charge by the user, charge by implementation, charge by time).

    They cannot all succeed. Hopefully the market will favor those with real distinctions and with the best technology. I am pretty technologically savvy but still don’t feel prepared to judge Mzinga next to Jive next to…..

    The most immediate an tangible use of white labels is in a space where the label doesn’t really matter: employee intra/extranets. The social network-based model where the staff member is the dominant knowledge “unit” is the natural course of all extranets. Many companies have been spending quite a bit to create their internal social net for knwoledge management, access and communication. The wide range of choices from teh current slew of socnets will drive down the costs of implementation dramatically.

    The interesting innovation to come is when employee social networks bridge the divide between walled-garden access and content to the public face of employees. I want to share one thing internally – client materials and insight – and something else externally – though leadership and co-creation. Will there come a time when my staff “profile” at Ogilvy becomes portable to me next job?

    Anyhow, I’m just sayin’…..

  • “Where you think the future of White Label Social networks is headed over the next 5 years, and why you back up that prediction?”

    Thats a great question. Over the next 5 years this market will likely experience several things:

    1. Consolidation: As with any new market, software, more than most, it is rife with competition. Currently this is a good thing for the buyer because competition pushes price down and quality up. It forces people to innovate and go the extra mile. However, as was seen in virtually all software markets, it will plateau and the space will begin to consolidate with mergers, acquisitions and closings. I predict this will begin within 24 months and we are already seeing signs of it.

    2. Commoditization: – The market will experience some degree of commoditization as innovation wears thin. Competitors will begin trying to cannibalize the market share of their competitors as well as their feature sets.

    3. Segmentation – The market will likely segment as well. As with many products, solutions will begin to specialize and cater to different verticals such as health care, B 2 C and media. We are already seeing signs of this in the market today, but right now it is safer to be all things to all people. Within 18 months many solutions will begin to specialize to provide solutions to a niche space.

    4. Innovation: Of course, the space will begin to evolve to a great degree as has occurred in all software spaces. For Social Media, I believe this will likely focus on incorporating Web 3.0, or semantic web technologies. As users of social media begin to create exponentially larger sets of data, finding the right answers to questions without a painstaking search will become absolutely critical. Semantic web and advanced search technologies will likely be the answer to this problem.

    If nothing else I hope that this is somewhat interesting:

    Matt (twitter: @MattShandera)

  • Like e-mail and cellular telephony, social networks will evolve to a world of complete interoperability. Online identities and social graphs will span multiple networks, making the distinction between brand and white label irrelevant. This is inevitable based on the need for people to interact this way, and the proliferation of open source applications and the creativity of developers in tearing down walls.

    White label social networks may indeed help drive this evolution over the next five years, as purveyors of white label social networks help drive innovation. But the critical value will exist in the relationships and applications that arise out of the interaction among users. As long as that interaction can exist across multiple networks, the branding of those networks, white or otherwise, will matter less.

  • Jeremiah — great idea to give away the tickets on your blog in exchange for ideas…it’s working!

    Over the next five years I believe that social networking will grow and the company that perfects white label social networks and is first to market will be the big winner. I see more people/companies wanting their “own” social network that they bring their personal style to. Not just in terms of content or design, but URL as well. Rather than http://www.MySpace.com/Travelocity (for example) why not http://www.Travelocity.com/Social? (Or whatever they would name their community). Servers may need to be the size of laptops, but that’s not so far-fetched is it?

    As the digital natives move into the working world and the working world becomes more accustomed to social media, everyone will be looking for new challenges, new ways to push the envelope, set themselves apart from everyone else. It’s inevitable that with the current interest in social networks everyone will eventually want to “own” their own piece of the pie. Everyone builds their own websites, right? Has their own blogs? Why not their own social networks?

    The company that discovers the simplest method of importing info (from a simple Word doc, Excel file, etc) into the social network (so people don’t have to re-enter info for every network) will be a big winner too. Sharing info across different networks would be valuable as well (ala Friendfeed).

  • I’d love to go to the conference.

    I think there is HUGE potential for white label social networks in the future. And although many people will still be involved in well known networks such as Facebook etc., the opportunity for a company or brand to launch their own social network focused on a niche topic is better than ever for several reasons:

    1. Technology is out there for the web application side
    2. Proliferation of broadband and growing use of the internet in day to day jobs
    3. General understanding of the landscape by companies

    And you don’t have to look very far for evidence. Just look at Ning – they pretty much embody the concept. Anyone can start a network and for a small fee they can brand it however they want without Ning’s ads.

    http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/125/nings-infinite-ambition.html

  • Where you think the future of White Label Social networks is headed over the next 5 years, and why do you back up that prediction?

    1. I see more inclusion of current social networks into the corporate work space rather than the development of new networks. Individuals invest their time and effort in building their online communities. Currently, there are just too many online applications to maintain for the mere mortal — having to maintain a separate social network for work is another maintenance chore. People will do it for the paycheck, but grudgingly.

    2. Individual open social networks travel with the individual rather than the corporation — so people are more likely to put more time and effort into these to create their own unique online brand which can be meshed with the corporate brand.

    3. As existing social networks are built into the infrastructure of an organization’s presence, more training on how to manage your online presence will be offered. This is now a cottage industry which should experience significant growth over the next 5 years.

    4. With all the free tools out there that currently talk to each other (and have more intimate conversations every day), how fiscally responsible is it to invest big bucks in an independent social network? What’s the point? Use your corporate funding to accomplish your mission and leverage the tools in which your audience has already invested their time.

  • Aimen

    If there is truly a future for whitelabel social netowrks I beleive that a few key things will have to be met. The following types of networks will survive and grow:

    1)Networks focused on key verticles or hobbies where the participants are passionate and invovled in their passion on a daily or weekly basis

    2)Networks around niche causes and issues that provide significant incremental value by bringing together like minded individuals that would otherwise have a hard time find other similar like minded individuals: eg: Alzheimer’s caregivers, kids with Kidney Reflux issues, Triplets, Emergency Room Nurses, etc where there are issues and topics that these individuals would find value in disucssing and sharing

    3)Networks that can exist as a stand alone product but those that can also easily plug into larger networks such as facebook, LinkedIn Hi5, Bebo etc-

    4)Networks on a B to B level that again focus around niche industry verticles and bring significant value to the participating individuals and groups as mentioned in # 2 above

    The statements above are already proving our in some of the trends we are seeing in the Web2.0 world today and in the way that people are using social networks for both business and pleasure.

    I would love to go to the DC event

  • Kate

    I think a lot of these comments are right on, but they’re missing one point. Firstly, let me say that I do think there is a future for white label social networks.

    I’ll add to some of the comments above and say that part of the reason I think there’s a future is that, despite many of the great points above about how businesses SHOULD be using social networks, a lot of businesses will continue incorporating these platforms into their existing offerings.

    That’s not to imply that this is a BAD thing, but to address many of the points above is addressing an issue that I view as outside the direct rise or fall of WLSNs (that was much easier to type). They can be useful and effective if used properly. I believe they’ll continue to be used regardless. The better question might be HOW they are used, and if there’s some way to couple WLSN expansion with effective marketing techniques instead of just offering a platform with it. I believe some of these companies do that (I did some work with Vitrue a while back, and I believe they offer marketing consulting along with their platform).

    By doing this, it will only encourage even more expansion. By not doing this, I still think the next five years looks good WSLN, but with some adopters not knowing what they’re doing. Yes, there are a ton of social networks out there… but if you can make yours important enough to the consumer, that’s the key.

    And yes, I’d love to go to DC.

  • Daniella Q

    I think Ken is dead in and deserves the free ticket! If you need a companion, feel free to holler!

  • CONTEST CUTOFF

    Wow, I wasn’t expecting this many answers so quickly.

    While I certainly want this conversation to continue (please leave more comments)

    I’ll only be reviewing the posts that are above this comment. While I read every single comment on every single post, I simply, don’t have enough time to compare and contrast more than this.

    I’ve asked some peers to help me make a decision, the winners to be announced soon.

  • Ken

    I think one of the main things to realize from a company’s management perspective is whether or not you have a business plan for social media. Companies have been branding websites featuring different technology for years. Perhaps most notably are job websites. If a company wants a job listing page, they’d outsource it to someone like Taleo, Hcareers, or Monster, but still maintain the identity and look & feel of the website (gotta love that corporate branding because everyone needs to make sure that the user knows they’re on the same page, even though the URL says otherwise).

    White Label Social Networks are about the same and many of my fellow commenters are probably saying the same thing: the future is there, but with businesses. Consumers aren’t going to buy into it because after being inundated with web 2.0 websites constantly, we’re a little bit wise onto these tricks. We know where to go if we want to find information on travel or gadgets or finding cheap (priced) furniture. We don’t care that Sears or Walmart has a social network site right now. What good will that do us as consumers? It’s like businesses are always one step back and a good marketer would know when to say to management, “what’s the point? are we really doing this to benefit our clients or just to say we’re in web 2.0?”

  • Tom Chevalier

    24 is so arbitrary, how ’bout 26 for a fresh perspective?

    WLSN’s are going to the browser.

    The browser is the gateway to the internet, where social networks are surfaced, so it’s the logical place to find the WLSN.

    Migration path from today to 2013 when the browser becomes the norm:

    Step 1 was to build the networks–both branded & white label.

    Step 2a will be products like Google Friend Connect as the starting point to aggregate branded (facebook, LinkedIn) networks and WLSN’s.

    Step 2b is Open Social and the like that provide the vehicle to add valuable features/functionality to the resulting social graph.

    Step 3 will be to layer affinity & community predictors (like me.dium) on top of this aggregation so the social graph becomes smart enough to recommend the next connections & interactions.

    Step 4 is the migration to the web browser. At the browser level, enterprises can control the pieces of this new “WLSN”. At the same time general consumers can customize the browser to surface the pieces of the WLSN that are relevant.

    WLSN’s are going to the browser…

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  • I have to agree with Dave Zatz' comment above. I think *most* companies are better served by engaging their customers on existing networks rather than trying to draw some small portion of their audience to a white label service that duplicates functions of existing services.

    However, that's not to say there is no market for white label services. I think they just have to be aware that a lot of the meaningful interaction is happening elsewhere and set expectations accordingly.

    If the white label service has hooks into the existing networks (i.e. publish things to/from Twitter or Facebook), then the two could co-exist and feed off of each other.

    I think lifestreaming apps or aggregators are examples of services that could be successfully white labeled since they are built on the understanding that users aren't sharing things in just one place.

  • What a thought-provoking article. Based on my experience, the social Web is spawning more than millions of widgets, applications, and people connections. It is also has its own themed conference. In the future social networks will be like air, No matter what you do, your social networks will be there. The social graph and your identity will be at your fingertips.” Social networks could have an interesting effect on personality. One key issue today is that social graphs–the set of relationships in the digital the mimic those in the analog world–are walled off from each other. As more people come in contact with each other, there may be increasing homogeneity…as in, suddenly a tattoo, while being a badge of camaraderie, is also passé thus, the rise of individuality, as there is a desire for increasing freshness. Therefore the “social web” gives rise to Individual End Points (IEPs). “The simple misconception is that any communications infrastructure can be used for anything. Thanks a lot for posting this such great artifact, it really help us.