Social Network Strategy for Web Services

Your web service needs connections, in every sense of the word. When you need people, you go to where people the people gather. These days, those places are social network services, and if you ignore them, you’re ignoring both your current customers and your potential customers. You need to know how best to leverage social network services(SNSs) to benefit your current users, and thus, gain new ones. I’d like to help.

A Company’s Place in Social Networking

The first and most important thing to remember is that while you have a place on a social network, your company does not. SNSs are not made for companies, they’re made for people. Your goal as a company is to give people tools that they can use or talk about with other people. Ideally, as discussed later, you’ll be taking part of those conversations, but not through a branded character or fake persona, and certainly not through a faceless corporate profile. You wouldn’t send a mascot out in the physical world to attract customers(over the age of 5), and any attempt to do so online will be just as insulting to the people you want to connect with. While a representative of your company will have many chances to take part in the conversations people are having about your products, for the best results your products will still need to speak for themselves.

Understanding Social Networks

While each SNS has a history and culture as unique as any business, rest assured that you don’t need to have studied their history in-depth in order to succeed. The most important question to have an answer for is: What is this service’s social object? If you’re asking, “What is a social object?”, I’d like to point you to a slideshow by Jyri Engestrom, the founder of jaiku, the competitor to popular micro-blogging service twitter. Essentially, a social object is a specific type of content around which a service’s actionable functions are built. Flickr is for sharing/tagging/annotating photos, is for saving/tagging/sharing bookmarks, etc.

SNSs will have different social objects, and often those objects are not people. That’s because while social networks provide many options for meeting new people, most of them are truly about interacting with the people you already know. Even those that aren’t, often have a different true focal point, such as a specific common interest, sharing knowledge, achieving goals, or accomplishing tasks. You must understand the social objects of SNSs in order to determine if and how to provide tools to the people on those services, and how to approach joining conversations with those people.

You wouldn’t enter a bar and start making sales pitches to everyone in the bar, and likewise you can’t pitch people on a SNS, not without understanding what they’re there for. In a bar, to be welcome in conversations you either need to be a regular, or at the very least buy the person you’re talking to a drink. A ‘drink’ on a SNS is whatever the social object is; but unlike a bar, you have many more ways to serve the people you want to bring to your business.

Integration & Priorities

I’ve identified five key ways you can connect your service to a social network service, and benefit from it. They are:

  • API
  • Application
  • Embed/Widget
  • Image
  • Hyperlink

Generally, the order of that list is also the order of value achieved through that method of integration, though with the specifics of your service, it may vary. A SNS’s API will allow you to access some of their data and use it on your own service. I’ve chosen this as the most valuable method of integration not because it increases your service’s visibility on social networks, but because it greatly increases the likelihood of someone from a SNS choosing to use your service once they discover it. Your biggest problem isn’t gaining visibility on SNSs, it’s customer acquisition. Click-through, follow-through, whatever you want to call it, your challenge is to bridge the gap between a potential customer knowing about your service and wanting to use your service.

Integrating a SNS’s API helps build that bridge, because it shows people using that SNS that you already have data they’re interested in. Their friends, their interests, their friends’ interests, etc. If you can find a way to use that data on your service, any of that data, your service looks more valuable to potential customers than it would without. There are only a few sites that are specifically social network services that offer APIs currently(though that number will increase), but there are a substantial number of sites with social features, whom offer APIs. See ProgrammableWeb’s Web 2.0 API List.

The second most valuable method of integration is to build an application on the SNS’s platform. While currently only Facebook allows 3rd parties to build an application usable on this site, several other SNSs have announced plans to offer competing platforms, including overseas heavy-weight Hi5. Developing an application for a SNS platform will gain your service visibility and provide another incentive for users of that SNS to use your service. Depending on the business model for your service, a SNS application version of it may be simply another way for them to do the same thing they could do on your site, and profit you equally. Otherwise, your application should function as a limited version of your service, still with usefulness of its own, but even more useful if an individual on the SNS goes to your site itself.

Creating a way for customers to embed your service, or the results of using your service, is an essential method for gaining visibility and adoption. It’s place in the middle of this list is only a result of the limited focus of this post, success on SNSs. Many SNSs allow their users to take HTML they’ve copied from another site, yours for instance, and paste it onto their profile page, embedding a widget that can do anything from play a movie to display an interactive game. However, there are also many SNSs who do not allow(like Facebook), or limit the types of widgets a user can embed. While that means an embed will vary in usefulness, depending on which SNSs your service is targeting, it is still essential for gaining visibility off of SNSs, on blogs and other individual-controlled sites.

While embeddable widgets are more versatile and interactive, but frequently disallowed due to SNSs’ security concerns, images are allowed virtually everywhere. The key to using images on SNSs to gain users is to not expect individuals on a SNS to be happy to be able to put your logo on their profile page. You must appeal to their self interest by using dynamic images that display information relevant to them.

My favorite example of this is National Novel Writing Month’s images 1, which display how many words a participating novelist has written. Your service could use dynamic images to display how much money a customer has spent, how much money a customer has saved, how many times they’ve completed a task, their current ‘mood’, almost anything. You simply provide them with HTML for the image, wrapped in HTML that links to your service.

The final method, a hyperlink, may seem insultingly obvious, but you would be amazed at how little services think about how to maximize the effectiveness of links pointing to them. Some don’t seem to care at all, providing few, if any, permanent URLs for their users to link to. The best linking strategies involve guiding current users in order to best attract potential users. Provide HTML for your current users that will let them link to interesting content on your site, using the descriptive text you’ve chosen.

PC makers, such as Dell, could benefit immensely from allowing customers to configure a PC in its online store, then provide a permanent URL for that configuration, so that customer can link others to the exact computer they plan on purchasing, rather than having to link to a generic model, at best, and provide a lengthy description of what changes they’ll make to the defaults. Likewise, users on your site should never have to say to another person, “Go to their homepage, type ‘goblidygook’ into the search bar, that should bring up the right result, check the two checkboxes on the next page, then press submit, and that’s the page”. All they should have to do is say “Go here”. And even better, they and everyone else using your service should be able to copy and paste a link at anytime that says “SpecificPerson’s GoblidyGook Profile – Check it out and create your own!”.

It’s Not What You Offer, It’s Who’s Offering It

At any social gathering, if you’re trying to attract people, you need someone attractive. Not just good-looking, but likeable. If you want your business to be part of the conversation, you need a conversationalist. Not a salesman, because the purpose of this person isn’t to sell people on what your service is capable of(if the reasons to use a web service aren’t obvious these days, it’s obviously doomed), but instead to make them aware of it. While taking advantage of the many integration options available to you, having a socialite employee who’s willing to show them off, make connections, and become part of the communities you want attract is the true key to succeeding on social networks.

1 I’ll update this page with a link once it’s available, the NaNoWriMo servers are currently overloaded as registrations recently opened.