There are two issues here. First, there is a finite number of people who want to use the Web to escape the real world, and many more who would like to use the Web to improve their world. Secondly, marketers (the ones supposed to provide the revenue) need their virtual interactions with people to result in real-world actions, namely purchase decisions. I have always maintained that true social media is simply a digital representation of our real-world social interactions. It's why I am so happy to see more and more of the leaders in our industry drive the principle home.
Brad Burnham, of Union Square Ventures, puts it perfectly on USV's blog when he says, "The next generation of services will need to have an impact on the real world and the real economy, not just an attention economy driven by self expression and discovery online."
Before all of you start jumping on me in the comments, the way everyone seemed to jump on Brad in the comments section, I fully realize that successful social media platforms have given people the ability to impact the real world and the real economy for some time. The challenge is now that we have seen what the social Web can do, and how people want to use it improve their lives, what will we build? Put simply, to be differentiated, a social media platform must offer more than the ability to impact your world beyond the Internet; it must be built to impact your world beyond the Internet.
In his post, Brad links to a Tim O'Reilly article, "What good is collective intelligence if it doesn't make us smarter?" The title pretty much sums it up. The 2008 Web 2.0 Summit Launchpad series is looking for companies that have been built to leverage communities to solve the world's problems. The shocker is that these companies don't even have to be entirely Web-based.
Looking at these thought leaders, and at so many other conversations, I see that the medium has to move past the idea that online social networking features makes a social media platform. It was a conversation with one such thought leader yesterday that got me thinking about this. In a post titled "Social Networking is Not a Strategy, But it is an Application" more more than two years ago, Kara Nortman, then with Battery Ventures, now with IAC, wrote: "Note: If you come in to pitch social networking as the main differentiator in your marketing strategy, you are not alone." The point is that social networking functionality is not a differentiator today, and it has not been for some time.
If you are a platform developer, the question you should be asking yourself is: What is my social media platform doing to change the way people live both online and off? And if you're a marketer, the question is very similar: What is my social media strategy doing to make people want to take action on my behalf, both online and off?
The question both marketers and platforms alike should be asking is this: Am I betting, because I add social features to average content in a new vertical, that I am now differentiated -- or do I have a differentiated concept that I am then adding a layer of social features to? Believe me, they are two different strategies; and if you run into a VC as sharp as Kara or Brad, or, for marketers, just about any consumer, they'll know the difference.