Build it and they will come. This philosophy has worked for the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but are people also drawn to the growing number of niche social networks being set up by some brands as a community space for like-minded consumers?
For many brands, the open platforms offered by Facebook et al. already provide sufficient tools for such communities. Nonetheless, some brands are pulling away from Facebook, the 'giant nightclub where you go and do a bit of flirting', as Tablet Hotels founder Laurent Vernhes described it. Instead, they aim to provide a more intimate network where they can engage on a more personal level with consumers.
Brands from Weight Watchers to First Direct have been developing their own 'communities' online in recent years. Marketing recently revealed that Manchester United also plans to build a social network and media outlet for its estimated 354m fans.
It is easy to see the attraction of a sports-brand-hosted social network, for which the audience is usually passionate and highly engaged - and to spot the ripe ad and sponsorship deals that might come from such a media platform (see ConsumerWatch below). It is more difficult, however, to see why consumers would want to open up and share personal details on a bank's community site.
Clearly, the banks have other ideas. This month, both Royal Bank of Scotland group and HSBC took the first steps toward creating their 'own Facebook'. HSBC has created a brief for agencies to help it design and build a strategy for engaging with consumers in the social space.
The big question, however, is whether consumers really feel the need to have a selection of niche social networks available, particularly those hosted by a brand with a marketing agenda.
First Direct has shown it can be done. It has been a banking pioneer in social media, having established several online communities, including its Talking Points forum and a Little Black Book (LBB) site, where customers can share recommendations on nights out and events.
Natalie Cowen, head of brand and communications at First Direct, where she oversees digital marketing, says that the company has a high level of engagement with its customers and, as it is a niche brand with customers who tend to be like-minded, there is an appetite for social networking among them.
'Social media fits with the brand but we have to have an authentic reason to engage,' she adds.
'When customers ring up we have a chat and some banter with them. We think Little Black Book sits well with how we behave in other channels.'
However, Cowen warns that transparency is the key to success in this area. 'As a brand you have to be involved in the conversation and take the good with the bad; when you create one of these platforms, you're playing on the customers' territory,' she says.
Building a social network is not a decision to take lightly because, Cowen explains, such sites require a 'big investment' and a digital support team in place to regularly evolve the community and respond to consumers.
Ceri Perkins, strategy director at agency Partners Andrews Aldridge, works on GlaxoSmithKline's social network for its Alli weight-loss range. She admits there are high development and ongoing costs, but claims it is worth it, particularly for a brand that sits within a 'sensitive' area.
As well as providing information on the drug, and advice about weight loss, diet and fitness, Alli's social site offers a place for consumers to chat to each other and acts as a support network.
'Bespoke forums offer the reassurance and security of engaging with a like-minded community for practical advice and peer-to-peer support at a more personal level,' says Perkins. 'This is something some people would feel uncomfortable discussing within the wider social environment.'
The debate about how much of our lives we should keep personal and away from the public forum is hotting up, with full exposure clearly in the interests of Facebook, which could build a more detailed profile of its 800m users. Facebook's recently introduced timeline feature allows members to share the minutiae of their social interactions via its ticker Examples such as Alli, however, highlight a desire to keep some discussions away from mainstream platforms.
Last month, Vernhes said that if brands create a community on their websites, they can facilitate interesting conversations where people get heard. 'If you don't build your own communities, you don't control the richness of content,' he added.
Christian Cussan, vice-president and managing director, Europe and Latin America, of Ning, a platform for creating customised social websites, argues that it can simplify how a brand controls social media.
'It can be difficult for brands to manage disparate communities and upload content to the Facebook, Twitter and Google+ platforms, and others,' says Cussan. He explains that Ning is able to post content from brands' sites to the Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, making maintenance more efficient and less costly. 'Social is ubiquitous, so any brand that doesn't have some degree of social engagement is risking alienating users, but this doesn't have to mean brand pages on Facebook and Twitter,' he says.
Not everyone is convinced. Jamie Jouning, digital director, Conde Nast Britain, contends that there is a risk of creating 'ivory towers that nobody visits'.
'For us, creating something from scratch seemed pretty pointless, as our audience was flocking to Facebook. So we decided we needed to go to where they were already,' he says.
While Cussan argues that a customised social network gives brands complete control, particularly of the resultant consumer behaviour data, Jouning argues that the greater exposure offered by Facebook means there is a greater 'likelihood it will drive more traffic to our own websites'.
Brands need to be 'sensible and measured' about their aspirations when it comes to building social communities from the ground up, according to Ben Wood, managing director of media agency iProspect.
'Although these proprietary social environments have customer-data-management benefits, I worry that brands will end up with white elephants - in the same way that many found themselves with beautiful, but not necessarily popular or useful, customer flash-based web experiences in the past decade,' he says.
If entities such as HSBC and RBS manage to spawn vibrant online communities, brands across the spectrum are likely to follow suit. Whether they opt for the 'nightclub' that is Facebook or create their own networks, authenticity and consumer understanding is key.
As Cussan says, brands must ensure they have an 'authentic hook' to attract people. Otherwise their network will end up simply feeling like an empty marketing gimmick.
CASE STUDY - FULHAM FOOTBALL CLUB
Fulham FC opted to create its own network on Ning as its official socialmedia destination, to bring fans together and grow enthusiasm for the London club. It customised the site to create a virtual 'Craven Cottage stadium', where members share statistics and discuss upcoming matches and player prospects.
As well as forums, it also has a live chat feature so fans can chat while matches are on. Members can sign in using Facebook, Google and Yahoo! log-ins. Since its launch in April 2009, it has acquired more than 8400 fans and generated 27,000 discussion topics. It claims to receive 50,000 unique visits per month, with the average time spent more than six minutes per visit.
DOS AND DON'TS WHEN CREATING YOUR OWN SOCIAL NETWORK
- Have an authentic hook
This could be around the brand or an activity, but don't create one for the sake of it.
- Keep the look and feel simple
Do not overload the consumer with unnecessary tools and features - ensure the functionality is relevant.
- Facilitate the conversation
Brands should not be absent from conversations, but equally, they should not be overbearing.
- Invest in the platform
The initial investment could be costly, but maintenance costs must be factored in, if brands want to do it properly.
- Promote it
Use digital marketing, be it newsletters, banner ads or other social-media tools to drive traffic to the site. The more people, the better the community.