It’s often noted that replicating online tools that are mainstream and already perform the functions you need, just for the sake of having something with your own logo on it, is a mistake. In most cases, I’d agree. With social networks in particular, considering the number of existing tools with scores of users – LinkedIn, Facebook, Orkut, hi5, Bebo and so on – if you are looking to create a community, why would you want to create something new? Most networks fail, ROI is hard to measure (you have a load of members – so what?), and as mentioned, existing tools usually have all the functionalities you could ever want (and can even be used easily and cheaply).
All valid points. However, sometimes there’s a case for an organisation, movement, group, party etc. setting up a tailor-made social network:
- If you want your network to perform a specific function.
- Most pertinently, when the people who might use it – call it your fan-base or stakeholders or whatever – are numerous, enthusiastic and active, and actually would like a social network that caters for them and them alone.
The success of the US President-elect’s network – my.barackobama.com – confirms both points. The specific functions it performed were a) raising money for the candidate, and b) allowing supporters to mobilise great numbers of people in a very organised manner. And with regards to the second point, I think it goes without saying that Obama supporters were plentiful enough and fired up.
A less conspicuous case-study I’d cite, also from across the pond, is Firefighter Nation, the firefighters’ network, which has 26,000 very active members that are avidly using all the functionalities on the site (e.g. all thirteen forum topics had been active in the last 24 hours when I checked). So why is it working? Primarily because of a very strong dose of point 2 cited above: there are lots of firefighters in the US, they are very passionate about their profession, they have a very strong sense of camaraderie, and they want their own space where they can meet others like them and share their unique experiences. A Facebook group could probably do all the same things, but it just would not feel as special; it would not be a unique platform for them alone.
So the lesson is: if you’re thinking of setting up a network for philatelists or fans of tiddlywinks, use an existing platform (and don’t hold your breath). If you’re interested in something that can really get lots of people fired up (politics, saving wildlife, football) or, say, represent a very active political group or faction, then your own social network could work, if executed and promoted well. And if you really do fancy giving it a go, I’d recommend starting on Ning, which is the platform Firefighter Nation is built on – it’s brilliant, and what’s more, it’s free.