July 18, 2008

Has the Net Grown Out of ‘Poking’?

By Furness, Victoria

Analysis In January, Linkedln, the online network for professionals, announced it was expanding into Europe with the opening of a London office and the appointment of Kevin Eyres as managing director, Europe.

You might not find anyone inappropriately poking you or challenging you to a game of Scrabulous on this rather serious networking site, but Linkedln is growing fast, doubling in size in all of its major regions in 2007 to command five million users in Europe and 18 million globally. So does this mean that users are shunning the big, more frivolous social networks in favour of more grown-up professional networks? Or are more people simply looking for a new job?

In his blog, Robin Goad, research director at Hitwise, noted: "The site is becoming more and more important to the recruitment industry: it still doesn't send a huge amount of traffic their way, but the traffic that it does send is high quality and on the increase."

To be fair, it also performs a useful networking function for its members. "Linkedln enables you to have a dialogue with the people in your network and also the people in [your contacts'] networks, which from a practical standpoint is very difficult to do," explains Eyres. As well as helping users maintain a contacts book, there's also a news feature and Q&A section, so users can receive and give advice from their first- and seconddegree networks.

It's not the only online network targeting professionals, though. Viadeo claims to be the only European social network to have been involved in Google OpenSocial (the open standardsbased platform for social networks) from the start, and to have 1.8 million users in Europe. Unlike Linkedln, Viadeo is available in seven different languages - although Eyres says Linkedln will increase the number of languages supported as the site expands further into Europe - and offers more of a community aspect with 25,000 community forums, where users can discuss different businessrelated topics.

The number of niche networks online is also proliferating. Recruitment firm Monster kicked off 2008 with the acquisition of Affinity Labs, a company that builds and owns several community sites including PoliceLink and ArtBistro. Meanwhile, in the UK. Doctors.net.uk has nearly 152,000 registered doctors on its site, about 20 per cent of whom are active on the site every day.

Only doctors registered with the General Medical Council can join the site and it's this exclusivity that Will Mclnnes, managing director of social media agency Nixon Mclnnes, believes is attracting user interest in niche and 'exclusive' sites. "We're talking to one of the biggest publishers in the UK about plans for an invitationonly network for head techies in very big multinational companiies," he reveals.

Anti-sodal networking

It was inevitable that there would be a backlash against the phenomenal coverage given to social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook during the past couple of years - especially after the letter's poorly executed launch of its advertising platform, Beacon. "Social networks are a fantastic insight into what people are talking about and interested in, but they have to be treated sensitively," stresses Ed Riseman, general manager at The Big Group, which owns digital agency bigiinteractive. "Beacon was pretty invasive of people's privacy and took things a little too far."

Networking sites such as privatesocialnetworking.com (which does what it says on the tin) and Piczo, a teenage social networking site with 28 million registered users worldwide, sell themselves in part on their privacy controls. "Part of the reason I think we're successful is because members feel they can publish a more open, honest and no-holds barred account of what interests them in their lives, and share that with a tightly knit group of people they typically know in the real world," says Piczo's European managing director, Chris Seth. There's no search functionality on Piczo, so members have to share urls in order to find one another.

Badoo is the complete opposite in this respect, as anyone creating a profile or blog on this social network largely does so to entertain the other 12.5 million members. It's "more about showing off than communicating with friends", explains director of communication, Lucy George, with revenue solely coming from users paying one Euro (or $1, depending on their location) to rise to the top of search rankings. Consequently, the site doesn't need advertising on its site, "and that's a real differentiator," adds George. "We realised we were on to something and it's part of our philosophy."

Arguably, there's also been more interest in social publishing platforms, such as Ning and Webjam. because they let users determine what their network looks like. Webjam, for instance, has a module that lets a user show different aspects of their profile to different groups.

Gina Bianchini, chief executive and co-founder of Ning, agrees that users increasingly want to keep their personal and professional lives separate online. "In fact, the major limitation to the general, one-size-fits-all social networks is that there are only very crude ways of separating out the personal and the professional," she says. "That's why we believe that there will be a world with millions of social networks, for every conceivable purpose, both private and public, uniquely tailored to people's interests and identities in different contexts."

End of the line?

So does this mean the end is nigh for such networking behemoths as Facebook? Far from it. Growth in Facebook might be slowing, but it's still on the increase and the site already has a global membership larger than the UK population. Looking to the future, Blake Chandlee, Facebook's new commercial director, says the site - which he calls a 'social utility' not a social network because "we're a tool to help people manage relationships" - will continue to look at "how we can provide value to users so they can more efficiently manage their lives and become closer to the people they want to invite into their own world".

Another site building up its communication and sharing features is Plaxo, which started life as an online contacts service. What makes Plaxo's social network, Pulse, so interesting is its aim to open up its network by pulling in 'people feeds' - updates from people in a user's address book - from sites they're contributing to, such as Del.icio.us, Digg, Flickr and MySpace. "We didn't try to just create another destination on Pulse; we realised lots of people are already using a variety of tools and services to express themselves," explains Joseph Smarr, chief platform architect at Plaxo.

Moving away from communication and into the realm of online media platforms are social networking sites MySpace and Bebo, which are using entertainment and music to persuade people to spend time on their site. The first series of Bebo's interactive drama, Kate Modem, attracted more than 35 million views with an average of 250,000 views per episode, for instance.

"Users are really spending time on Bebo and using content to project their personalities, so for brand advertisers, it presents a number of opportunities. A site that skews more on the communication angle will have fewer opportunities to touch those users," claims Mark Charkin, global vice-president of sales at Bebo.

The scale and reach of the large social networking sites certainly make them a compelling destination for advertisers wanting to reach a wide audience. But at the same time, the high volume of advertising inventory available devalues its worth. "With social networking, a lot of impressions and volumes are very low value because the users are engaging in discussions, chats and everything that comes with social networking, so it's not the best environment for advertisers to be targeting and engaging with audiences," says Max Moore, vice-president of publishing at AdJug, an online ad marketplace. "More niche social networking probably gives more opportunity for advertisers to present an ad in a more targeted way to the audience."

Tom Hings, director of brand marketing at Royal Mail, hasn't been tempted to advertise on any of the online networks so far because, he says, "there are few well-known brand advertisers currently maximising social networking sites." But where he can see an opportunity is in targeting SME business customers through a site such as Linkedln. "It's the perfect niche site for Royal Mail to consider because it has a very highly targeted audience," he says.

That said, Facebook is one of several social networking sites trying to offer more targeted advertising. Although marketers buying display advertising on its site - which is handled by Microsoft - can't target their campaign down to a user's interests, advertisers working with Facebook to deliver ads through a user's news feeds, can refine their campaign to this level.


Potentially more excitingthough, are the non-display forms of advertising emerging on these sites - whether the appearance of Cadbury Creme Egg in a Kate Modern storyline or the Facebook application from big:interactive that lets Cadbury'sWispa fans create an 80s persona. "You need to create interesting stories people want to get involved in and the benefit of social networking is it enables that content to go viral," believes Frances Dovey, interactive and emerging media manager atCadbury. Even serious content can reach users on social networks if it piques their interest. To engage and educate young people about the Aids pandemic, for example, the British Red Cross worked with Enable Interactive to create profile pages on Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, featuring videos, polls, quizzes and a forum for users to share their own stories. Over the six-week campaign, there were 39,000 social networking profile views - most of which came from Bebo - "and we had a very high level of engagement," recalls Dorothea Arndt, head of new media at the charity.

Clearly, a good advertiser and its agency will use whatever networking site best suits its campaign - whether that be a social networking site with broad reach or a niche network with a devoted following. So, much as in the offline world where people interact differently with different groups of people, we can expect to see niche and professional networks sit alongside larger social networks in the online sphere, rather than displace them.

What's more, points out Hugo Burge, founder of HOWZAT Media and investor in several networking sites including WAYN.com and TrustedPlaces. com: "The nightmare of having multiple passwords is being dealt with by movements like OpenSocial, which should make the interaction between these networks more seamless, helping to ensure they all thrive."

Indeed, what might turn out to be the most interesting development this year is the effect OpenSocial and the open standards drive for data portability across sites will have on the way users interact with one another online. The innovation this might produce will make for very interesting watching indeed.

Linkedin enables you to have a dialogue with your network and also your contacts' networks

Kevin Eyres, LinKedin

Social networking sites - the big players

Facebook Founded in February 2004, Facebook started life as a way for Harvard undergrads to stay in touch with one another before extending to anyone online. There are now more than 64 million active users and it is the most popular photo-sharing website.

MySpace Bought by News International in 2006, MySpace calls itself "the premier lifestyle portal for connecting with friends, discovering popular culture and making a positive impact on the world." Users - of whom there are estimated to be around 200 million - like it for its music and entertainment content. It recently opened its platform to enable developers to build applications on its site.

Bebo is a popular social networking site for 13 to 30 year olds, and has more than 40 million worldwide users. Bebo describes itself as a "platform for self-expression" and the network has become well known for developing original online TV programming, such as Kate Modern. More recently, it opened its platform to media owners and developers.

Linkedin is an online network of more than 1 8 million professionals worldwide. Its mantra is to make the professional more productive, and to that end its aim is to make networking with contacts (and their contacts) easier. It also boasts news and Q&A features, and generates revenue from advertising, job posts, premium membership and corporate subscriptions.

Social networks are a fantastic insight into what people are talking about and interested in

Ed Riseman, The BIg Group

More niche social networking probably gives more opportunity to present an ad in a more targeted way

Max Moore, AdJug

Bebo: social networking is becoming more specialised

Members feel they can publish a more open, honest and no holds barred account of what interests them

Chris Seth, Piczo

Copyright Haymarket Business Publications Ltd. Mar 2008

(c) 2008 Revolution. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.