LiveBlog: What’s Wrong with the White Label Social Networking Industry?

This is really heaven for me, many of the vendors I cover such as SmallWorld labs, Jive, Telligent, Hivelive, Lithium, Webcrossing, Google all at the same table.

I’m here here at the Online Community Unconference at a session where we’re probing the problems with the White Label Social networking space. The question? Are social platforms shit? (I didn’t come up with, I’m just taking notes)


[The question posed to this roundtable of vendors, clients and analyst: "Are social platforms shit?"]

If you don’t know the value of white label social networking vendors are, many large brands and organizations are hiring them to build online communities for their customers and prospects. I get a few calls every week from clients to discuss this growing need.

What’s interesting is that all the folks at the table are collaborating (as one would expect from the community industry) to discuss pan-industry problems from clients, features, etc.

Who was here? A dozen folks, a majority are vendors, and a few community managers and strategists from brands and companies. Leading this session is Greg Biggers.

Challenges expressed by the table:

Lack of Interoperability within this fledging industry
Platforms don’t have interoperability, due to lack of standards. For example brands create a community for customers, while marketers launch a facebook campaign. Differences include objects, protocols, data types, login, profiles, news page data.

Community Managers don’t know what they want, so who should educate them.

Owners want to move data from one vendor to another. Some say that the database schema is very similar from some vendors, it wouldn’t be hard to develop a migrator.

One community manager from a large tech brand (she asked me not to blog her company) wants to expose and share CRM data.

Lack of Flexibility
Not having a standard supply of community feature ‘recipes’ are difficult, no cookie cutter approach.

Content and navigation is sometimes not organized in a way of the communities’ need.

Communities software need to be flexible to adapt to the communities needs. For example, if a ‘food’ community shifts their focus from recipes to menus or then to ingredients, the software needs to be able to adapt and change.

How can a platform adapt to emerging technologies, such as twitter.

Who is responsible for understanding the domain of the community.

Lack of User Experience too many community projects

Confusion around Measurement
Would like to have user behavior analytics, current metrics are not easy to use. Telligent showed off their product, right time at the right place.

Difficult to get customer data behavior.

Lack of standardization of community behavior, such as a standard support metric, standard growth metric, etc.

Behavorial metrics are easier to gather but tying back to ROI will be difficult.

Large communities cannot self-manage
Tools need to allow the community to manage it self, with the right features to remove, alert, reduce bad behavior.

High Performance issues rising
Having hosting services in multiple locations is a challenge for communities that need to scale for large enterprises that need high-availability. (Webcrossing and solutionset). Expect this to continue to be an issue as communities become a node in the enterprise software system.

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Tagged #ocu2008

Update: Dennis McDonald suggests the solution could be process, not more technology.

  • http://conniebensen.com/ Connie Bensen

    Thanks for sharing the session. I was following your tweets, but this is much more comprehensive & puts it in better context.

  • http://evolvingwe.com Josh Ledgard

    Thanks for typing this up. The shameless plug for our (Telligent) product is here http://communityserver.com/get-it-now/harvest/

    It was good timing. I’ll agree with that. Thanks for listening to my demo!

  • http://launchpadcoworking.com Julie Gomoll

    What about Online Community Fatigue? I realize this is related to data interoperability and portability. But the fact is that I’m thinking long and hard before I join *yet another* community. When I send a friend an invitation to something – whether it’s a party at my house or some new online community – I want it to mean something. There are very few, if any, *companies* I’m willing to spend my social capital on in this way.

  • http://www.geekmommy.net GeekMommy

    Maybe I’m not reading this right, or missing something – but honestly? This sounds like proposing sort of a ‘Social Media Socialism.’

    This whole concept that all services should offer the same information or data portability has eluded me for some time. Yes, I understand from a user’s standpoint why it would be nice to be able to say “well fine then, I’m taking all of my data and leaving you and giving it to Company X!” But honestly? All that really does is promote a level of sameness.

    From a developer’s standpoint – why the heck do I want to produce the same make and model car that every other car manufacturer is producing? If the only difference is color, then I’ve got no chance to really stand out.

    To a point, the developers need to say ‘okay, what does our community need/want?’ but if that isn’t immediately followed by the phrase ‘and is it in our best interest to try and provide that?’ then they’re doomed.

    Yahoo being an example.

    If I call my dentist, I expect him to ‘share’ my file with a new dentist, yes. But if I call a chef I don’t expect him to share all of my favorite recipes with the chef from another restaurant…

    There are some sides of data portability and sharing that I can get all behind. For example – the 3rd party APIs that access a platform don’t replace it, so there’s no harm in sharing that access. But the concept that all of them should get in line and conform to the community’s changing whims? Sounds like design by committee – which is seldom a good idea.

    My two cents anyways. As I said – I’m probably missing a lot by not actually hearing the conversation.

  • http://spaghettitesting.wordpress.com Peter Smith

    re the car analogy: makes me think of Henry Ford – “you can paint it any colour you want, as long as it’s black” … Mebbe data portability is like that impulse?

  • http://brianfending.com Brian (@fending) Fending

    GeekMommy has a good point – to a point. The sameness behind data portability shouldn’t just be for portability’s sake. Imagine another extension of the car analogy, like a Corolla and a Camry: Same dashboard. Possible to differentiate them? Yes. Cheaper to commoditize it and push the same one into both cars? Absolutely. We’re not talking about having the same engine, body, or even windshield shape – just that dashboard, a commodity that looks roughly the same in each to no ill effect.

    The baseline of what data is portable, compatible, etc is the low-lying fruit. When it gets challenging/interesting is in those metrics, where consortial effort makes community management into generic user management just like it turned logistics into supply chain management. But let’s start with email verification statuses.

  • http://www.geekmommy.net GeekMommy

    Absolutely agreed Brian – although we’re starting to get into OO-programming terms here, eh? ;)

    The thing is, there’s a line up to which data portability is not only brilliant, but necessary. But I keep seeing people want to push past that line. Standards are good, open source is good, but making it ‘easy’ for someone to take all their toys and go play with the competitors instead? Bad.

    Apple learned the hard way back in the 80′s about keeping it all from the other guy… But there’s a point at which you have to say ‘you know, we’ll give you the dashboard, we’ll give you the specs on the windshield – but you can’t have our engine blueprints, we’re not going to give you our wind tunnel results, and no, you can’t see our designs for next year’s models before we release them.’

    The other issue to be addressed tho was the user desires driving it. A car redesigned solely to the user’s desires turns a sedan into a monster truck… and then they complain about the gas milage.

    And wow – I’ve gone off down metaphor road here. Sorry about that.

    What I’m saying is that there is definitely a line in DP and similarity between sites that has to be acknowledged rather than crossed blindly.

  • http://siddey.wordpress.com siddey

    Great discussion.

    I’m aligned with GeekMommy. The thought that all social networking platforms can support a common feature set assumes that we really understand what the secretsauce behind the success of these networks is. I don’t think we do, so to assume that we can standardise the shape and form of vendor products is a little premature.

    Standards and flexibility are like oil and water unless you narrow down the scope of what it is you’re standardising. Data portability initiatives are currently focused on taking away the pain of signing up for a network in the first place. Nothing more, nothing less. Obviously there is a need to keep an eye on what’s is becoming “the norm” (which they’re discussing now) and add it to the standards but as GeekMommy says, I don’t want all my social networks to look like a Ford, so just make sure they all have an engine, wheels, steering, breaks and somewhere to sit. My own view is that vendors could focus more on dissecting discussions and actions whilst also extending my profile information based upon my own actions and discussions in order to locate information that is relevant to me. This would help to filter the noise and reduce the time I spend aggregating information that may exist across many different communities.

    We should be acceptive of the fact that this is still an industry in its infancy and enjoy exploring the evolving shape and form of networks over time? The vendors most in tune with individual and community needs will lead the way. That’s good business and to attempt to bring everyone down to a common level at this early stage is not good for anyone.

  • Veronica Giggey

    I’ve worked for a couple vendors as part of the Professional Services and Consulting teams. I find that one of the biggest challenges for vendors is to find a balance between doing what they like (create and sell software)and helping customers know how to use it. It’s very hard for someone trying to sell software to tell a customer that they aren’t prepared to buy it. A big percentage of enterprise networks and online communities end up in a continuous pilot mode or run out of steam because neither the customer nor the vendor planned and managed the community. Of course the vendor is simply doing their job, by providing a great platform and great technical support for it.

    The questions of who educates the customers is key. Customers needs to realize that vendors either don’t have the expertise, the motivation or the resources to nurture and manage every community implementation. It would be unrealistic and unfair to expect vendors to turn unprepared customers down. My previous employers both did their best to prepare customers for the road ahead, but the bottom line was of course if the customer wanted to buy they were going to sell.

    As customer awareness increases, they will realize that it takes more than a platform to build a community. The options are: 1. Purchase their white label network as a true SAAS model; 2. Purchase platform from vendor + Seek third party expertise from social media consultants or 3. Purchase platform from vendor + Internally staff community planning and management roles.

    Thanks for the summary!

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    I’m always so impressed by the commenters, I learn so much from you all thanks

  • http://eggheadmarketing.wordpress.com/ rsomers

    Thank you GeekMommy for questioning the unspoken assumption that *of course* data portability and interoperability is a good thing.

    I think it says a lot about the state/stage of the industry that most of participants would make that assumption. It tells me that we are still at an early stage where most people in the space are idealists. Social media’s Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have yet to show up (or show their colors, if they’re already there).

    Combining Metcalfe’s Law (the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes) with the notion of Community Fatigue cited by Julie Gomoll, I’d think we’ll end up with a few big winners and many also-rans. That’s similar to any maturing market.

  • http://www.ddmcd.com Dennis McDonald

    The “elephant in the room” here is cost. Veronica Giggey should go one more step in her final paragraph and say something like, “But before you select any of these alternatives, be prepared to understand the total costs through the first year of two of what it will take to actually implement, manage, and support the solution.” The challenge: estimating the non-technology costs.

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  • http://www.sparksocialmedia.com Leif Hansen

    Great summary Jeremiah, and great comments as well. Seems to be some confusion about data portability -I don’t want all cars to look alike, I just don’t want to have to get a new license for each car I ride in.

    Community Fatigue –I think thats the big big big huge issue. Thanks for saying it Julie. Us early SM adopters are feeling it now, it will be felt by the rest within 1-2 years. I’d love to know what SN platforms builders think about this topic.

  • http://www.hivelive.com Sean Bell

    Community Fatigue is an interesting topic and I would be curious to dig into that a bit more.

    My sense is we interact with a wide range of real communities on a daily basis: work, personal, private (on the micro level) and: HOA, City, etc. (on the macro level). But, in general we don’t necessarily feel exhausted from these interactions.

    Or maybe we do.

    My questions:
    Is Community Fatigue a symptom of a larger real world fatigue? Is it manufactured through poor information architecture and bad user experience? Or is it simply a function of far to many choices and ways to split our online focus?

  • http://contagiousbehavior.com ken

    Interesting take-aways from this session and the comments.

    This space really is in its infancy. We are watching the evolution of how we all become part of and expand our own ‘communities’.

    Those who understand and are able to commit the non-technical resources to community success are successful today and will continue to be in the future.

    This is about people.

    And on the business side, it is about metrics and ROI. Marketers love the digital channel because it is measurable…digital communities and conversations are too.

  • Christopher Coulter

    I’m always so impressed by the commenters

    Exceptions to every rule. ;)

    But on topic, you can’t apply vague generic solutions, for something that really needs to be internally customized, as the law of unintended consequences is always king, and then, add in a lack of results and no real effective metrics, companies will just end up throwing money away at whatever is the hot buzz of the moment. Flipping a coin would work just as well.

    It’s very hard for someone trying to sell software to tell a customer that they aren’t prepared to buy it.

    If you can’t make it easy or workable enough for them, you aren’t prepared to SELL it. Don’t make the software fit your needs and then go all blame-the-customer, you-aren’t-ready.

    I’m not really impressed by any of the commenters.

  • http://www.stevenbshaffer.com Steven Shaffer

    On the community fatigue subject, my feeling is that audiences will eventually demand OpenID.

    But how long will that take, and what do we do in the meantime?

    But then again, as my wife walks past me and says, “Oh God, are you on the computer again?” I remember that I, web surfing, Web 2.0 loving, marketing strategist AM NOT the majority.

    The average person doesn’t spend their time running around online joining a bunch of communities.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Trackbacks didn’t show up, but do see what Dennis McDonald wrote about process

    http://www.ddmcd.com/managing-technology/theres-nothing-wrong-with-the-social-networking-industry-tha.html

  • Veronica Giggey

    Hi Christopher, maybe you can share a bit of your solution with us. I’m not aware of any community platforms which can simply be turned on and gurantee a vibrant community. If there are, we certainly are wasting a lot of time learning about social media strategy, management and dynamics.
    My comment regarding customers not being prepared to buy does not come from a technology perspective. Certainly you shouldn’t make a product, which is so hard to implement, that it needs to wrapped with consulting before it can be launched. My point was actually about community building and adoption having two components (or two costs, as Dennis points out); 1. the software 2. the process. Vendors can provide the software, and perhaps some of the process. Customers are not ready to buy, when they don’t understand the process or they don’t have resources to manage it. You can launch a Blog in hours, but unless there is a strategy, content, monitoring, etc.. in place, you really haven’t gotten very far.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Veronica

    So you know Chris’s background, he’s my online version of Triumph the Insult Dog. A former colleague of mine, he’s a nice guy in person.

    Online however, he loves to stir it up as a troublemaker.

  • Veronica Giggey

    I Love Triumph the Insult Dog! Hey, I think challenges just make you think harder about what you were really trying to say. I probably would have chosen a different way, but in the end I’m just happy someone read my comment :)

  • Christopher Coulter

    Community isn’t software, nor even process, it’s relational. You can’t flow-chart Six Sigma people into some sort of community process, people aren’t cattle. Processes only work with enforcement action, real community is absurd, chaotic, and unmanageable, the minute you try and “manage it”, it ceases to even be community.

    If you force it’s creation, it’s not even real. Just make great products, let the community take care of itself, planned economies never work out well, history is filled with such examples.

  • Christopher Coulter

    PS – My solution is that there is no solution.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Agreed Chris, but normal corporations have a knee jerk reaction to what is organic, they want it organized.

    Glad to have the old Chris back, the one I prefer, you’ve always got a place here bud ;)

  • http://liako.biz Elias Bizannes

    Recognise that data, by definition, is meaningless. It’s an object. Further down the value chain of information[1], you get higher order “data” which is unique to the application that generated it.

    By recognising a value chain for information, companies compete on different aspects in the chain which currently in the web economy are lumped as one – the generation of what a consumers interests are, where that data is stored, the application of those interests to a catalog of products – are all different functions that different companies provide.

    So it’s not so much about stealing unique information for a restaurant, as it is having access to it. That restaurant with the recipe doesn’t lose anything by sharing your preferences, because it makes its money on the quality of the service – a different stage in the chain.

    [1] http://liako.biz/2008/05/the-value-chain-for-information/

  • Christopher Coulter

    because it makes its money on the quality of the service

    Quality of the service, price/quality of the goods, portions of the goods, wine selection, overall atmosphere, location and ease of parking, placement of the clientele (Odorfific Car Mechanics not near the Suits). time to wait, cleanliness of restrooms, general politeness of the staff, following instructions and cooking to your preferences, having a certain ‘brand’ universally liked (i.e. corn feed Midwestern quality beef over leather chew-toy West Coast beef). But even if the restaurant does everything right, having some crying kid at the next table can ruin it all. Like everything in life, it’s complex, and differing for every person, fingerprints really.

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  • http://evolvingwe.com/ Josh Ledgard

    Thanks for typing this up. The shameless plug for our (Telligent) product is here http://communityserver.com/get-it-now/harvest/

    It was good timing. I'll agree with that. Thanks for listening to my demo!