Writer Corey Guilbault relates his social fatigue to the "abundance of noise from a bazillion broadcasters making it hard to hear anything." Valerie Romley of Moving Target Research is even more fed up, exclaiming: "I'm totally over any and all social networking which is a huge time suck." That said, Romley does admit that LinkedIn remains a great source for finding "referrals to qualified partners and vendors."
Oh no, not another network!
Which begs the question: Have we reached a saturation point that limits, if not dooms, the opportunity for new networks to blossom? Valerie Grubb, who runs a bustling real estate consultancy and actively reaps benefits from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, proclaimed: "I just don't need ONE MORE SITE." Mia Malm, a S.F.-based PR consultant echoed these thoughts, concluding: "I think most people have at this point established what networks they want to be in and those networks have a critical mass."
A week ago I would have agreed with these prognostications, but having experienced two new network enablers, Referral Key and MixTent, now I'm not so sure. Both of these new services have a fighting chance of catching on, addressing areas of business social networking not fully covered by LinkedIn and certainly not addressed by Facebook while taking full advantage of the connections you already have on these networks.
Referral Key is a viral juggernaut
Of the two, Referral Key may be the most profoundly viral application since Twitter came on the scene in 2006. As its name implies, Referral Key is designed to enable peer-to-peer referrals among small businesses, finding strength in the simplicity of its offering. Once you sign up for Referral Key, you can then solicit all or selected peers on LinkedIn to send you referrals, offering the referrers any kind of reward you desire including cash.
Thus far, the secret to Referral Key's virality is the most compelling email subject line I've ever seen: "Are you taking on any new clients?" To gauge the power of this line and interest in yet another network, I used Referral Key's system to send about 100 invitations to selected colleagues culled from my larger LinkedIn database. Within 72 hours, an astonishing 70 of the 100 had joined Referral Key. Another 10 responded to my email politely declining but reinforcing the undeniable power of a "killer" email subject line.
Sure you got our attention, but will we use it?
Of course, responding to an email and delivering referrals is hardly the same thing, and it remains to be seen whether Referral Key will end up being the useful source of leads for small businesses that it promises to be. Stephan Paschalides, co-founder of NowPlusOne, a research and innovation agency, wonders if Referral Key will really catch on. Explained Paschalides, who is certainly open to the idea: "I invited a bunch of people, but none of them invited other colleagues yet -- maybe there are too many work/networking-related sites out there."
MixTent, another new entry in the B2B networking world, takes a completely different approach from Referral Key: It asks users to rate colleagues already in their LinkedIn networks. The rating process has a fun, game-like component, in which users choose from a pair of colleagues, based on the question "which would you to prefer to work with?" in a particular category (in my case, Marketing, Consulting, Writing, Social Media, etc.)
MixTent gets mixed reviews but there are lessons here
After rating 25 pairs, MixTent asks if you would like to share your positive ratings with your preferred associates. This triggers a potential email with the subject line: "Hi, I just voted for you on MixTent." MixTent encourages you to share this email, which in theory attracts more people to the "tent" and unlocks more aspects of the service to the user. Based on the limited response to the emails to 35 peers for whom I voted, it's a bit too early for me to declare MixTent a viral peer to Referral Key.
Whether or not Referral Key or MixTent becomes the next big thing in social media, there are two important lessons here. First, email is still among the most powerful weapons in marketing, assuming you write compelling subject lines. Second, there are still unmet needs out there that the social media giants will either ignore or be unable to address. These chinks in the armor will create opportunities for highly focused start-ups that can work around, or better yet, within the giant ecosystems created by the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn, overcoming the social fatigue that will hold the less viral ones at bay.