Editorial: You can't own a social network

Another week, another branded social network. Last week, Marketing reported on fashion retailer French Connection's plan to harness the power of user-generated content through its site www.anewmovement.com. The previous week it was HMV, Miller Homes and Skoda. In recent weeks Cisco, Sony, Mazda, Virgin Trains and Diesel have, in various guises, joined this online bandwagon.

It would be going too far to suggest that every brand is at it, but website launches and relaunches are taking place in sufficient numbers to lead one wag on Marketing to suggest we save ourselves work by reprinting the same story and just changing the name in the headline.

When communication ideas travel in packs it is usually for good reason. In this case, the reason is panic and ignorance - or more particularly, panic of being in ignorance. What other explanation can there be for marketers to rush into a customer dialogue, the outcome of which is unknown, when a conventional approach would be to analyse the number and type of customer contacts, evaluate the effectiveness and then recommend it to the board, or not?

Yet the justification is almost palpable. There are upward of 50m consumers who have actively engaged with social networks; an audience in which the younger end of the age range has an appetite for communicating digitally with 'friends' that is impossible to overestimate.

Applied to the major social-networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo, and acknowledging the role of messaging services including MSN and Yahoo!'s respective Messengers, this logic stands firm. If, and it's a big if, a brand can find its way to the relevant groups and conversations in this space, then it is right to embrace it as an enhanced mass communication channel that combines significant audience numbers with the ability to target users by interest.

It falls apart, however, when it is assumed the same logic can be applied to branded social networks. It is quite possible to overestimate the appetite consumers have for communicating digitally about your brand. We know this because the same mistake was made when it was marketing vogue for brands of every description to develop a customer relationship, regardless of whether the customer wanted one.

Similarly, many of the first generation of brand websites allowed users to communicate through a now-unfashionable forum mechanism. Social networking's superior bandwidth and some functionality aside, these forums provided largely the same outlet to a similar tiny group of intellect-poor, time-rich consumers who now find the marketing industry beating a digital path to their door once again.

Did any of the brands that had such 'conversations' wither and die because of the pitiful nature of the exchange? No. Are there any case studies from that age proving the overwhelming efficacy of providing a return channel through which your customers can communicate with you and each other? Again, no.

Before swelling the ranks of brands trying to create their own social network, ask yourself the question your target audience might pose. Why, in a digital world that has mass social networks and niche social networks that cater to cat owners, new parents, gardeners, car enthusiasts, the soon-to-wed and every interest and life stage in between, would they come to your site?

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