Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Four Contenders - Mingling with Social

Inspired by yesterday’s reading of GigaOm’s blog about WordPress’ experimentation with Social Networking, I decided to look a bit further into the subject. It seems there are a number of contenders that appear to have a framework to mobilize a networking platform.

As eMarketer estimates the by 2011, US ad spending on social networks is expected to reach $2.5 billion, it's no surprise that a number of suitors will make their way towards the dowry.

Of the many channels vying to get social, the four that seem most aggressive are email, blog, instant messaging and yellow pages. Here are some thoughts on each:


Quick Stats:
  • According to comScore 2007 data, Global E-Mail (does not include non browser based e-mail) receives 556 million unique visits per month.
  • eMarketer reports that email penetration is at 91% among Internet users between the ages of 18 and 64. The same report shows that search engine use is the second highest in penetration.
  • Yahoo has 80 million users worldwide. According to Yahoo, users spend an average 24 minutes per day using the services. This is more than MySpace, Facebook and YouTube combined (24 min compared to 21 min daily). (Thanks Dave!)
  • The only stat I could find on Google was that there were 20 million unique US users to since November. (Thanks Eric!)
Address books, contacts friends, whatever you want to call them they are the common denominator when it comes to social networking. Browser based email has a big piece of the social pie here. The second step to almost every network around is to import contacts from existing email accounts.

I really liked this blog about Yahoo and Google planning to use their email platforms to create social networks from them. My favourite comment on the subject comes from Joe Kraus, who runs Google’s OpenSocial project, he said: “It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand.”

It looks like both Yahoo and Google may be banking on this in the future.

I'm intrigued by Yahoo’s "Inbox 2.0" project. The idea of prioritizing mail through visual enhancements according to how important the contact is for instance, sounds interesting. Using email signatures in a way that showcases rich profile information may be the strongest case for this channel.

Google and Yahoo have the masses to impress. The challenge will be to get users to create and implement the permissions attached to the multiple signatures they will inevitably need to get the most out of this platform.


Quick Stats:
  • The latest number (as of today) of blogs covered by Technorati is 112.8 million. However, this is only a fraction of the estimated number of blogs online. Blogs from China for instance, are not included in the count (representing tens of millions).
  • Six Apart (TypePad) has more than 40 million users (bloggers) globally. Source: Corporate FactSheet
  • Blogger would match if not surpass this number leaving the rest to the smaller platforms in the landscape.
  • WordPress for instance, has almost 2 million bloggers. With an average of around 9,000 new blogs created each day. Monthly WordPress activity averages over 2.7 million posts on per month (over the past 5 months).
Anne Zelenka writes that blogs just might become the next social network citing that some of the product features appear to be well suited for the space. Anne went on to describe blogging’s contrast to social networking in that it offers a person-centric way for individuals to come online.

I agree with this view but I also believe that bloggers may have varying identities making it difficult to manage them in one space. A dog-loving nurse may not want to have her pet journal world collide with her private cigar aficionado friends she’s met while blogging on Cohiba-World.

Along with collecting and maintaining member contacts, for social networks to work, they require consumer oriented CMS systems that are dead easy to use and nice to look at. Blog platforms are richer versions of open CMSs and so, have a good deal of the groundwork done.

Chris Messina’s DiSo project (distributed social networking concepts) will certainly be worth watching as it unfolds. OAuth may address the colliding world issue and I’m particularly interested in the concept of “WhiteListing” as I feel this has a multitude of applications for a number of players.

Instant Messaging

Quick Stats:
  • ComScore data shows global unique users of Instant Messengers was at 390 million unique visitors for the month of October 2007
  • In April 2006 – comScore Networks released results of an analysis of instant messenger (IM) usage in various parts of the world for the month of February 2006. Some highlights included:
    • Eighty-two million people, or 49% of the European online population, used IM applications to communicate online in the month of February.
    • Sixty-nine million people in North America, or only 37 percent of the online population, used IM during the same timeframe.The analysis showed that IM is most heavily used in the Latin American region, with 64 percent of the online population using IM in February
I had an interesting chat with Rajesh Bathia, one of the founders of the other day. Buddystumbler is built on the premise that user behavior is king when it comes to capturing and maintaining active social networkers. The product is still in its infancy but the concept has been mapped out.

Upon registration, users dump all their chat contacts into the platform and go on to create profiles attached to their handle. Rajesh talked of some interesting partnership plans that allow users to display their status, blog and photo updates within the chat environment. Registered users are able to browse the entire network (Rajesh hopes that this will be a major combined share of AOL, MSN, Yahoo and Google).

While there are many factors that make this approach very natural, I am haunted with Joe Kraus’ comment about creating a new brand vs. extending the usage of those that already exist.

Yellow Pages

Quick Stats:
  • comScore reports 808.6MM IYP search queries in Q1 of 2007 (including Google & Yahoo) this amounts to around 269MM queries per month
  • comScore’s 2006 release of IYP Share Data as showcased on Greg Sterling’s blog last summer showed that the majority (over 85%) of all Internet searches occur on the major search engines Google, Yahoo and MSN.
This leaves yellow pages publishers scrambling to re-invent themselves to gain share in consumers’ ever-fragmenting daily media usage.

The new generation of yellow pages sites have taken some time to abandon their structures which have been deeply rooted in their rigid print legacy. for one, has made great strides towards positioning itself as a player in this space. The first real movement towards the directory channel's new image was its circa 2004 proclamation that yellow pages are truly the "local search experts". Since then, publishers have been rushing towards social networking opportunities as research continues to point towards localized word of mouth as the holy grail of profitably putting buyers and sellers together.

While those publishers who are heavily ensconced in their past through branding are struggling, sites like MojoPages and Yelp have been built from the ground up to harness the power of socializing in a directory context. These sites among other new entrants allow users to connect with friends and other people in their neighborhoods to share reviews and feedback on local businesses.

With social networking enablers like Montreal-based Praized, yellow pages publishers may be able to transform themselves effectively if they act quickly. Time will tell.

I think the biggest challenge is that directory usage has historically been categorized as just that. Looking to make friends on a yellow pages site brings with it a multitude of issues. Users looking to get an address or phone number are now being asked to fragment their time further to share reviews and look up profiles of other reviewers. User experiences may be compromised as the focus shifts on socializing vs. having accurate, rich directory data.

To date, there has been some success through plugging directories into social networks but the evolution of pure play yellow pages to social has been difficult.

In summary, I have to defer to my theme comment of the day (thanks Joe), “It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand.” It's hard to argue with the hundreds of millions of email users that have and will continue (for the foreseeable future) to use the application as a mainstay.

With the growing concern over the time wasting going on within the pure play social networks, finding a work around might be the key. To this end, I'd hedge my bets and cast at least a strong vote in favor of email.

In the meantime Google, can you please make it stop snowing? Or at least moderate it?

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