Q&A About the Future of Social Networking

An ad agency that we have worked with recently asked publishers in the social media space to answer some questions. They are doing a study about the trends in social media. I thought I would at least publish the answers that I came up with here:

1. How do you define social media?
Social Media is content or communication that comes from users/consumers.

2. Why are users on your site? Does this match with the primary
role of your site in social networking?

Users of BlackPlanet.com come to the site for the opportunity to meet, interact and share with other African Americans. If you ask our members what value do they get, common answers would be: “I met my best friend because of BlackPlanet”, “I met my husband and wife because of BlackPlanet”, “I found my job because of BlackPlanet”, “I get to express and discuss issues that are relevant to me and my community”. We empower African Americans to improve their lives in meaningful ways through the power of their community. This matches with the primary role of our site in social networking.

3. Why is your site successful in this space? What makes it valuable?

BlackPlanet.com is successful because:
a. It focuses on African Americans which as a community of people has incredibly strong ties and affinities.

b. We provide value that affects their lives in meaningful ways.

c. It has a brand that is in an institution within the community.

4. Can you fill us in on the history of social media? Is there a story somewhere that we should know? How did this start? How do you fit into the mix?

We believe social media has existed and thrived before the advent of the Web. The Internet, before the World Wide Web was established, was primarily made up of online community systems such as bulletin board systems and usenets. When the Web came around it was like a Neutron Bomb hit the Internet. The analogy being that the neutron bomb killed all the people but left the buildings standing. The “buildings” being information and the “people” being the conversations. If you remember, the Internet became the “information superhighway” and all people could talk about was how the Internet was going replacing one to many media such as television and newspapers. The many to many and communication aspect of the medium was lost. The Internet was viewed as the largest virtual library. What happened to the people?

The early stages of community or social media on the Web was made up a lot of disparate tools. A message board site here, a chat site there or a personal page site someplace else. You may remember some of these sites such as Geocities, TalkCity or AOL Message Boards. We call this Community 1.0. Very separate and general use tools. The tools were not connected nor used for a particular goal or purpose.

Then came what we call Community 2.0. This is when tools started to be integrated to offer a more compelling communication and sharing experience. Systems such as personal pages, chat, message boards, groups, blogs were integrated onto one common platform. Sites like Friendster or MySpace took this approach and served a wide audience with a wide range of uses whether it was to meet new friends or discover new music artists.

The next evolution of Community or Social Media or Community 3.0 is about becoming more niche and use specific. Social media is becoming much more focused thereby super serving a specific consumer need. Tools such as profiles and comment boards and blogs are now being put together, changed and positioned to meet specific needs whether it is to share local business reviews (Yelp), stay connected with existing friends (Facebook), building a support network of moms (ClubMom) or professionally network (LinkedIn). This is a great thing. Social media is taking many different forms all driven by the fact that these companies are trying to better serve specific needs of much more defined and targeted consumer segment therefore becoming more valuable.

So how does BlackPlanet.com fit it in? The site was launched in 1999 and really pioneered the wave of Community 2.0 sites such as MySpace (Ask Tom Anderson if he modeled MySpace around a lot of the concepts that BlackPlanet.com proved to be successful long before MySpace was conceived). BlackPlanet.com has now been evolving in the Community 3.0 world by recognizing that in order to better serve the black community we must address the diverse and specific needs of the audience. This is why we have launched the BlackPlanet Universe. With sites such as NewsOne.com, TheUrbanDaily.com, HelloBeautiful.com, Elev8.com and GiantMag.com we know that the African American community has a wide range of interests and passions whether it be news, entertainment gossip, women issues, faith and fellowship or culture from a black perspective. We feel that one site can not be all things to all black people. However by creating a network of sites and platforms with the underpinnings of black social media woven into the fabric of these properties we are able to better serve and remain the number one online media company focused on African Americans. We believe we are part of the next wave of social media by super serving specific needs of users.

What are the 3 best and 3 biggest failures in social media advertising that you’ve been directly involved with? What is it that made them successful/unsuccessful? If unsuccessful, what should have been done differently?

Best
Barack Obama campaign – did an incredible job of integrating themselves with each social media site that they worked with and giving special attention and care about what was being communicated through what channel by using targeted messages to different segments. They continue this communication even after winning the election realizing that social networking is also another form of customer relationship management meaning that communicating on it is not a one time event.

Worst
Unnamed Test Prep Company – shut down the program because a member wrote a comment that their competitor has a better service. They were afraid of having more of these comments. The power of social media is not just about elevating brand advocates but identifying brand detractors and getting them to be brand advocates. What they should have done is find out from that user why they thought the competing service is better and either change their product or service to meet that need or if educate that consumer on why that isn’t true. Debunking myths or changing brand detractors to advocates is an incredible opportunity for a business.

5. Are there programs/technologies/brands that changed the game for social media?

For us MySpace changed the game. Online Community or Social Media was not widely accepted as a good branding opportunity. By us being black focused we faced trying to break that notion without the benefit of a general market player first breaking that barrier. Imagine if the first magazine was an African American focused magazine and if you were the ad sales person trying to sell advertising against that. That would have been harder than Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. J MySpace made it more acceptable and brought attention to the possibilities of using social media as an advertising platform. The wide range of programs on sites like MySpace, YouTube and Facebook demonstrated that Social Media can fill a wide range of needs and goals of advertisers. Therefore, making it easier for advertisers to utilize our sites.

6. What’s the current hot/new/exciting aspect of your site? Why do you think users are engaging with it so much?
See BlackPlanet Universe in the answer for Question 4.

7. Some brands are more relevant to youth culture… Do you think
every brand has a right to play in the space?

Every brand should play in the space. Social Media is becoming omnipresent and will be part of the experience of anyone that goes online. Social media is no longer a youth game. It is a people game.

8. Do campaigns live best in social networking space alone or in tandem with offline media? Please give examples if possible.

We believe that the tandem with offline media is incredibly powerful. If that campaign and message can follow the experience through a longer continuum, it can be much more effective. Look at the Barack Obama campaign. At the beginning, African Americans leaned much more in favor of Hillary Clinton. The Obama campaign focused a message and strategy that reached African Americans across all our media channels whether it be our sites, radio (Radio One stations), tv (TVOne) and print (Giant Magazine). We were a big reason for the Obama campaign winning the black vote.

9. Should a strategy be defined by the social media outlet (social networking vs. widget/applications) or by how people interact with the medium (ie voyeurs vs. content creators)?

It all depends. What drives strategy for any campaign should be the end business goal. Deciding on whether to use social networking vs. widget/applications is more tied to the distribution of that message. How they interact with the medium should be based on what meets that goal. The strategy needs to be first and foremost defined by the end business goal. Everything else should follow. The great thing about social media is the message, distribution and interactions can all vary depending on those goals. So that should be the strategy – mix and match to meet the business goals.

10. If you had to offer one piece of advice to advertisers in your space, what would it be?

Remember the fundamentals of marketing and drill down on how that can be fulfilled in social media. For example, segmentation and delivering a targeted message to that segment has been proven to be effective. The amount of segmentation and user data on social networking sites may be unmatched. Effective advertisers utilize that data. There are many values to the medium that are tied to proven marketing practices that are still under utilized.

11. What’s the next big thing for social media? Where do you see it in the next three years?

See answer to Question 4.

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