Organizations interested in creating social networks for employees, customers or other outside constituents (vendors, business partners, etc.) have three options:
1. Don’t. Create one, that is. Find an existing social networking site that already serves your industry, and participate there. This has several benefits:
- You don’t need IT support or budget
- A crowd of similarly interested people is already gathered so you don’t need to build a group
- If you participate intelligently, you and your organization can be seen as having worthwhile contributions for the community
Among the downsides are that you have no ability to influence the structure and direction of the site. You may be contributing to the conversation, but you are a thought follower rather than a thought leader. That’s fine; the world needs followers, too; without them, so-called “leaders” are just taking a stroll by themselves. And the reality may be that others have taken the lead in forming an online community, so instead of starting another party you should knock on the door and join the one next door. If there isn’t a network like the one you want to build, you could move on to consider options 2 or 3.
2. Create a new standalone social networking site. With numerous so-called “white label” software products available (Jeremiah has a list here) that can carry your organization’s visual identity, creating a networking space is relatively quick and easy. Advantages include:
- Complete control over the site’s look, including what features it offers and whether any outside advertising is included.
- If you are the “first mover” in your area of interest to create such a space, and if your organization is big enough to have the gravitational pull to draw others in, your site could reinforce your organization’s thought leadership.
- It’s not free, and you and your IT department are responsible for it. Anything less than 100 percent uptime reflects poorly on your organization. Some white label vendors also offer hosting services, but you pay for them, and your organization’s reputation is at risk if the site malfunctions.
- Building a social networking space is different from building a social network. As compared to option 3, a standalone site creates barriers to adoption that can hinder your network’s growth. Your members need usernames and passwords for your site. They need to remember to come back to the site, or you need to remind them through email or RSS feeds. Given its modest penetration to date, RSS will likely not be sufficient for these reminders.
3. Create a group within one of the existing social networking sites. Leading candidates for this are MySpace and Facebook. I have a MySpace profile I almost never visit. I focus on Facebook in this post because I am most familiar with it and I think it’s the most powerful, especially given its open platform that encourages outside developers to create applications to build upon its framework. If someone wants to make the argument that a group within MySpace is as good an option as a Facebook group for an organization looking to form a network, please let me know and I will edit this post and link to you.
Advantages of Facebook groups:
- They are free, and easy to create. In fact, I created a new Facebook group called “Social Network Options for Organizations” in exactly 7 minutes after I finished drafting this post, including pasting in this post as the first discussion topic.
- No IT support is needed, and Facebook is responsible for maintaining the servers.
- You can have your organization’s logo (see this one from the AAAS) emblazoned on your group site. In the case of the “Social Network Options for Organizations” site, I just added a photo of me. Assuming you have a logo already created, putting it on your group site adds another 45 seconds or so to your build time.
- They are easy to join compared with white label sites. If your potential members aren’t in Facebook yet, the sign-up time is roughly equivalent to a white label site. But for the 31 million current Facebook members (growing by 1.2 million a week), they can join your group in about 5 seconds. They just go there and click the “Join this Group” link.
- Your organization can form a network of networks. Say you want to have one network of customers or constituents and another of vendors, business partners or allies and still another of employees. In Facebook you can create all of those groups in less than an hour, and people can join whichever groups are appropriate for them.
- The site has advertising. This is much less intrusive in Facebook than in MySpace; just one ad per page at the most, in the left-hand navigation or on the bottom of the page. But it’s a free service, someone has to pay. Facebook offers sponsored groups, so if advertising is a big problem for your organization I think you could likely pay to not have ads.
- The feature set is basic. You can upload photos and videos and have a discussion board, as well as the Wall. You can choose not to have any of those features. The white label products likely offer more customization, but the Facebook interface is elegant and pleasing and the feature set is expanding. For example, I believe videos for groups is a new function; previously I think you could only add videos to personal profiles. And with outside companies developing applications for the Facebook platform, undoubtedly some of them will extend functionality for groups. If there is some feature you particularly need, I believe you could get a programmer to develop an application to add it for your group.
These are some of the factors to consider as you are exploring how your organization can become active in online social networking. Even if you do decide to use a white label product, you also should have a Facebook group, if for no other reason than to serve as an outpost with a link to your organization’s white-label site. If you don’t create a Facebook group for your organization, someone else likely will.