The popularity of Facebook, MySpace and myriad other social network sites has triggered a gold rush of opportunity for specialists that build social computing tools and sell them to businesses that want to put them in front of their customers in media and marketing campaigns.
For many businesses in e-commerce, marketing and media markets, it doesn’t make sense to spend the software engineering time to build a social computing platform when they’re available to “rent, borrow or buy,” Forrester Research analyst Jeremiah Owyang told eWEEK.
This is why somewhere between 80 and 100 young high-tech vendors (here is a partial list on Owyang’s blog) are looking to capitalize by creating white-label social networks for businesses willing to pay for them.
Sparta Social Networks CEO Jerry Sheer told eWEEK his company helps more than 40 businesses that need alternative methods of understanding their customers’ attitudes. “Social networks do that for them. We supply the platform for enterprises to build and deliver these networks, but we’re not a MySpace or a Facebook.”
As one might expect, this includes tools that enable blogs, wikis, profiles, forums, memberships and collaborative ranking technologies. One of the reasons businesses want them is that they see how much time consumers have spent browsing Facebook and MySpace, where they interact with friends.
For media companies, this stickiness factor increases the chance that consumers will see and even click on ads. E-commerce sites that have ranking technologies can let shoppers help one another decide on what products to buy or stay away from. In other words, each vertical market has its own use for social technologies.
Terry Mackin, executive vice president at TV broadcaster Hearst-Argyle in New York, used Sparta tools to drive the community on Highschoolplaybook.com, a sports marketing destination that pools, of course, high school sports participants and news from more than 30 cities.
“It’s intended to be a brand that is ‘ESPN meets Facebook,'” Mackin told eWEEK. “We wanted people to create groups and profiles about themselves.” Thanks to Sparta, members of the community can upload photos and video clips, and rate experiences on the site.
Mackin chose Sparta over Pringo and Pluck because it is a little more flexible with regard to its ability to serve video, an important feature for a sports site intent on luring users with multimedia.
Social Computing Developers
Pringo, of Los Angeles, has scored some interesting victories of its own. Marketing firm PCGCampbell used Pringo’s social networking platform to create a marketing campaign for Japanese tire manufacturer Yokohama, said Dan Criscenti, vice president at PCGCampbell.
An environmentally conscious concern, Yokohama wanted to engage consumers in how to save the environment. PCGCampbell was commissioned to help Yokohama spread its message, and it decided to use social computing to allow people to talk about what they’re doing in their communities to help the environment.
Having less than three months from concept to production to set it up, PCGCampbell built Ecotreadsetters, an online forum that lets consumers in the United States create profiles and blogs and post videos. Users are also able to submit their environmental projects to win prizes.
“There’s no way you could replicate functionality from Facebook or MySpace from the ground up,” Criscenti said, explaining why PCGCampbell chose Pringo instead of having its engineers build such a platform.
With vendors providing such efficiencies for their customers, it’s hard to dispute the value of social computing tools in today’s Internet climate. Perhaps the real question is: How many white-label social computing tools will the market support?
Sheer said Sparta generally charges its customers anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 per deployment, proving that there is money to be made in the space.
Yet not every vendor’s technology may make the grade. Sheer said he’s found architecting computing tools to enable social networks tougher than building e-commerce and other Web applications, partly because of the relationship models that go into connecting thousands of people.
“It’s very challenging; you can’t whip up something like this in 60 days,” he said.
The ease-of-entry issue depends on perspective. Forrester’s Owyang said social computing tools are a commodity now and have gotten easy to create, which is why the market is seeing so many entrants. Making those social networks succeed is an entirely different story.
“If you already have a thriving customer base, the chances of a social network working on your own brand could work,” Owyang said. “The disadvantage is that kick-starting a community and getting it up and running is a challenge.”