On April 12 at the Wharton Graduate School of Business, CMO Shawn Gold of MySpace and CMO Justin Cooper of Passenger were joined by Amy Errett, former CEO of Olivia, and Michael Bebel, CEO of Ruckus Network, on a panel regarding how best to build brands in social media. Not surprisingly, with the panel discussion taking place in a grad school setting and being directed toward the students, most questions posed by the Wharton moderator and responses offered by the audience indicated that neither knew much about the subject matter. So, anyone in need of UGC 101 could have benefited greatly.
The first round of Q&A was indicative of the rest of the discussion; each response carefully corresponded to the speakers' own social media offering. Passenger creates communities for the sole purpose of generating brand feedback through controlled dialog with brand evangelists. So in answering the initial question, "What does community mean," Passenger's Cooper began the responses with the notion that "community" is creating a collaborative relationship between brand and consumer.
Errett added that communities are affinity groups, but that successful social network communities must be authentic, and authenticity only exists where there is an emotional connection. MySpace's Gold finished by stating that those consumers attracted to social networking engage because they are seeking a sense of community. Therefore, the key to a successful social networking community is appreciation (a platform for belonging), recognition, confidence building, access and discovering knowledge.
Focus on relevant, contextual advertising content
Ruckus' Bebel noted that Ruckus runs an ad-supported business model. As such, Ruckus, and other ad-supported social network sites must serve ads that are positive, integrative, and which enhance the user experience. Gold emphasized end-user experience integration and its importance, both during the panel and in an interview afterward.
Gold, who sits on Passenger's board, provided an example of contextual ad-user experience using Passenger as a reference point. MySpace provides users a place where fans of ABC's "Lost" can find each other. Then, through links on MySpace, "Lost" fans who meet specific affinity criteria can join ABC's "Lost" community, managed by Passenger, where they can learn more about the brand, talk to company insiders, provide feedback, participate in product surveys and interact one-on-one with writers and brand managers. MySpace generates ad revenue; Passenger generates revenue from producing ABC's site; and the social networking users get to feel like they are part of their favorite show.
Gold also predicted that in the future MySpace will create an open marketplace. "Cross networking within interest groups creates value for value relationships," said Gold, who wants to see users able to sell to other users who are in the same interest group, exploiting preferences to mutual benefit.
"I see everyone on MySpace as their own brand," said Gold. "These friend 'brands' have built-in trust and consistency, and seek to improve their recognition (self-expression) platform." As an example, Gold mentioned musician users within geographic specific MySpace micro-communities being able to cross-market and sell their goods and services to each other, for a fee, through MySpace.
Control and protect your brand by narrowly defining your user group
The problem with branding and social networking media is control. The question posed to the panel was how to manage "content." The better phrased question might have been, "how do you control and protect your brand?"
Errett commented that while there is a tension between controlling brand message and sanitization, self-regulation is alive and well in social networking.
"One bad comment posted on a site or blog can often receive 15 positive comments countering the bad comment," Errett said. This is great news for social networking sites. Every member of the panel agreed that limiting self-expression and attempts to control content on social networking sites does not work, which is great news for users.
One brand-protecting solution for social networking sites is to follow Passenger's lead. Before the panel discussion, I asked Cooper about how Passenger can control branding and create honest results for its clients such as ABC.
"It's funny; someone from a previous session mentioned the 'Sanjaya effect.' We do monitor the authenticity of the responses," said Cooper. "But really, in order to even be accepted and invited to join one of our communities, you need to qualify through detailed questionnaires and surveys. Once participants are eligible, they have to continue to log in and participate or they are blocked from the community. So every consumer participating on our sites is really passionate about the brand."
To receive VC support, social networking sites will have to present hard data on how these new sites will monetize and how they will contain their brand.
So, what was my key take-away from both the panel and my interviews with Cooper and Gold?
Social networking may represent a marketplace of ideas and free thinking, but it still isn't free, despite what users and those outside this sub-segment of interactive would like to think. Industry trend is not toward a free marketplace, but more toward something that closely resembles other media.
Elizabeth Catterall is an associate, WIT Strategy, Inc. Read full bio.