Monday, August 18, 2008

Businessweek's Soc. Media Strategy--What's in it for the community?

Could social networks run by media companies be nothing more than ways of herding all of us into little niches so we can receive targeted marketing? That's the question I asked myself this a.m. after reading in the NYT about BusinessWeek's new hyper-niched social media strategy. The brief summary in the Times:
The core of Business Exchange is hundreds of topic pages, on subjects as broad as the housing market and as narrow as the Boeing 787. Plans call for the number of topic pages to grow quickly into the thousands. (The first one created, which may or may not be in the public version of Business Exchange, was “BlackBerry vs iPhone.”)

Now, there's nothing that says this won't work....but it does leave me feeling a bit like a goose being prepared for foie gras--like I'm going to be herded into the right stall so that I can then be force-fed the right kind of ads that will make me click.

Naturally, BusinessWeek wants to find some way to monetize User Generated Content. That's every publisher's dream. Shoving more ads in the faces of consumers--or, in this case, "members" of BusinessWeek's branded social network--may (not) be just the right kind of social media strategy to get UGC to pay off.

But is this just another "if we build it, they will come" kind of thing that seems to happen with stunning ubiquity out here? Here's the gist of how Business Exchange going to get users to generate content:
On Business Exchange, a user can post new material to a topic page, or even create a new page, choosing the subject and the title, and write a brief introductory description. This is hardly a revolutionary idea in the wiki era, but for a mainstream publication, it represents a significant loosening of control. (But not too loose — new topics require editorial approval, promised within 24 hours, and objectionable posts will be taken down. . .)

. . .The site also works as a kind of social network, letting friends, colleagues and rivals track one another’s interests — or, say, Warren Buffett’s interests, if he chooses to play along.

Each user has a profile (photo optional) that contains a personal description and tracks the user’s reading and posting habits. It allows the reader to create a network among other readers, and to import information from a LinkedIn account.

The user can also choose to make the profile public, with all of that information visible to anyone on the site. we can, one more time, upload a profile, with a pic. We can track one another and see what we--or some celebs--have contributed. But can we link our BE content on something like FriendFeed or even through Facebook? Will BE ask to get in our address books so we can "invite" others into our *new* social network? Or will all of the info we enter on Business Exchange be proprietary information, locked inside Business Exchange's niches? If so, then it would be one more place that people would have to visit regularly to make it "work" for them.

It's pretty unclear how this network will work for its community members. Yes, they will know who's there, but how will people interact with each other? How will they build community with each other? Who will be in charge of fostering good will and helping the community grow?

So far it seems like Users/readers/us give Business Week content. What, though, other than ads, does the community get in return?? What will be the advantage to harried businesspeople who may or may not already use other social networking sites?

From the article, it sounds like the community is there to serve the marketing needs of the magazine--and the article's focus on the *potential* ad revenue from this venture makes me think that ad revenue generation is the sole purpose of the network. Perhaps there's some "secret sauce" community strategy that BusinessWeek brass weren't about to give away, lest another publisher crib their strategy.

Or maybe there's no clear community strategy at all.

Social networking platforms and social media strategies ultimately aren't about the company, the brand, or the business. Social networking and social media gets successful by serving particular needs of a group and, in some cases, by having some great people involved to help the company achieve these goals honestly, genuinely and transparently. It's more about customer service than about directly generating revenue.

Perhaps it wasn't in the best interests of BusinessWeek and Business Exchange to blab to their readers--or in this case users who will just love to generate content for them--that the main purpose of the new network is, essentially, to monetize their freely contributed content by herding people into little pens of common interest...

Oh, I'm sorry, I meant niches. The Long Tail--that's all about niches, you know.

Yet will the users-who-generate-content formerly known as the audience, now known as The People, really want to be part of a network where the give-back and value proposition seems more of a benefit to the publication than to them, their interests, and their businesses.

Just my $.02

Thanks to @jayrosen_nyu for the tweet on the NYT article and to @chrisbrogan who's quoted in this great piece in American Executive on social media.

Update 12:15am BW's Spencer Ante gives the clearest explanation so far of Business Exchange:
Anyone can post a link to a story or blog post or video, whatever content you want from whatever source, and it will appear on the topic page. If the concept takes off, the site will really tap into the wisdom of the Web crowd, providing a powerful filter that will help people stay on top of their most important issues and discover new ideas and information.
Read Spencer for more info--which gives me the impression that BE is more of a site-specific content aggregator or something along the lines of Mahalo. Yet Mahalo's editors, from what I gather, are paid for their work. Once again: what's the return for the folks who use Business Exchange?

Update 11:45pm Steve Baker blogged this rather curious explanation of Business Exchange. In Baker's view, Business Exchange is less of a social network and more a "distant cousin to Wikipedia, and a much closer one to Digg and LinkedIn." Still, Steve gives no info on how the community will be managed, leading me to think BW may be using the "if we build it, they will come" line of community development. Further, the idea of separating "objective" news reports from blogs, which BL Ochman commented on is something we did at and was very popular with our readers--many of whom also blogged. Yet on NT, we separated news editorials from objective news as well, and would sometimes include blogs in objective reporting when the blogs presented balanced coverage.

Also important on BE is Tim O'Reilly's questioning Business Exchange from the perspective of linking:
When this trend(ed:linking within a site to its own content) spreads (and I say "when", not "if"), this will be a tax on the utility of the web that must be counterbalanced by the utility of the intervening pages. If they are really good, with lots of useful, curated data that you wouldn't easily find elsewhere, this may be an acceptable tax. In fact, they may even be beneficial, and a real way to increase the value of the site to its readers. If they are purely designed to capture additional clicks, they will be a degradation of the web's fundamental currency, much like the black hat search engine pages that construct link farms out of search engine results.
via this tweet from @jayrosen_nyu


Bill Anderson said...

Tish, informative and thoughtful post -- I like it!

But is it really surprising that online and interactive social media is used by commercial enterprises for commercial purposes? I've been running a Google alert on "social web" for over a year and the results are overwhelmingly focused on marketing.

Lee Siegel, in "Against the Machine" points out how almost all discussion around the Internet is couched in terms of economics. As much as I appreciate the utility of a good model, viewing all of our interactions and relationships in economic terms is limiting our imagination, to say the least.

As you point out here, we could use more conversation about what we mean by community and what we want to make of the Internet.

Tish Grier said...

Thanks, Bill, for the very thought-full commet...

What I found most odd about was the blatant--or is the term "transparent"?--acknowledgement by the Businessweek guy in the NYT post that what BW is doing is purely marketing. He didn't even try a little carefully worded lipservice to make it *sound* like they care about creating community for their readers!

And you're right about the conversation about the social web. It is taking place mostly in marketing (and p.r.) circles, with little of it bleeding over into other sections of the blogosphere. So when one says certain terms connected with the social web, one is talking mostly in economic terms.

Yes, it's limiting our potential--in fact, I think it's stifling how we perceive each other and how we "genuinely" interact with each other. If all we do is promote out "personal brand" and all interactions are a kind of veiled business networking, then we're far worse off than Putnam thought.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. You mentioned NewTrust separates 'objective' news and editorial. How is this possible? Is it manual? If so, doesn't it come down to the NewsTrust editor's own biases/judgments as to whether something is an opinion piece or not. Just curious...

Tish Grier said...

Hi tm...

good question! Here's a quick explanation of how it works:

Each story at NewsTrust is submitted by either one of the editorial staff or by a community member in good standing. When the story is submitted, it is marked news or opinion. If something is from the editorial page of a publication, or is someone's column, or particular kinds of blog posts, then it is submitted as "opinion" (and either Mainstream or Independent media.) If an article seems to favor one side of an issue over another, then that, too, is considered "opinion."

Articles that do not carry personal viewpoints and appear to be balanced are put into the "news" category.

Now, NewsTrust is a news review site, so while stories are put into the categories of "opinion" and "news" they are then reviewed by the community--and in this process, the community may find that a news piece is perhaps biased. The person reviewing may find the bias, and still think it's good journalism--or think it's bad journalism. Yet the key is if members of the community agree it is balanced or not balanced.

Usually, there's little disagreement on whether a story is news or opinion, while there may be disagreement on the degree of bias in reporting. If someone strongly disagrees whether a piece is opinion or news, they may write this in their review or even contact one of the editorial staff.

The NewsTrust team has worked very hard to get this system worked out, and it's working pretty well. Sure, there will be folks who disagree-it's a human-edited, community managed system, so there's going to be disagreements. But glaring mis-categorizations are rare.