First, let me apologize for the title. I couldn't help myself. Moving on. Since I read a piece in Ad Age regarding iVillage's recent struggles and future goals, the question I keep coming back to is this: Does a content-rich portal like iVillage guarantee the formation of sustainable online community? To date, the answer is a resounding no. In order to understand what's ailing iVillage and every other content producer, search engine or portal attempting to grow a social networking community around their online traffic, one has to understand two rules: 1. Using content to create community and using community to create content are two extremely different beasts. 2. Creating community for the purpose of monetization first doesn't work in the long run (unless you think you can beat the gods at chess).
Using quality content to create community has a significant, albeit obvious, effect on the community; the community is seeded with likeminded individuals. Whether that's a good thing or not depends on your expectations. Communities of people based around quality content have a shelf life equal to the continued production of quality content. The community-generated content can supplement the professional content, but what brings the community together is the desire for quality content. This will not create the perpetual motion machine that is an all purpose social network (sorry if I stole your line, Kurt!). So if your goal is for the tail to wag the dog and to assemble an online community that dwarfs your professional content (both in terms of volume and revenue generation) you've got the wrong plan and the wrong seeds. There is a passage from Competing on the Edge (the best page-for-page strategy book for hyper-change industries, IMO), which was co-authored by Google's own Shona Brown, that I think is applicable here. Shona, and co-author Kathleen Eisenhardt, are comparing the challenges of growing and maintaining great business strategy to the challenges of growing a prairie:
"Assembly doesn't work, or at least not for a prairie. A prairie is something that grows. It has to start small. It has pieces that interact and build on each other. Once it is 'up and running,' the prairie works as a complex system that is dependent on the intricate interaction of all the components of the system. A prairie cannot be brought to life with on 'abracadabra,' one wave of the magic wand."
Although intended to illustrate how to grow successful strategies, this passage, and really the entire section (so go buy the book), applies perfectly to building sustainable social network communities. One magic piece of content, or grouping of likeminded individuals, does not a prairie make. It would be like building a prairie with only one type of plant (say daisies). Those daisies will grow and can even be a great business. But they will only survive so long as they are fed and watered. There is no ecosystem, no perpetual motion machine.
The future of social networks (as discussed last week) is a complete digital representation of self and a new era of interpersonal communication. These content-driven social networks only represent one aspect of an individual's life. Much as we talked about last week, how many social networks would you be willing to join?
What this means is that successful strategies for social network applications within content-rich environments should be treated as supplemental value. In reality, quality content-based communities, like iVillage could potentially develop, should represent a significant force in the future of social networks. The future of content's role, and therefore the future of content's monetization, lies within that content's ability to be distributed and monetized through social network channels. A difficult task when today's social networks act like walled gardens, but a task that will get easier. One theory would be that if quality content communities pushed for interoperability and standardization among their social network applications, they could potentially give the major social networks a run for their money.
Jumping back real quick to the strategy of using community to create content: the warning of the prairie is applicable here as well. If you seed a community with too many likeminded individuals, or don't provide the right variations early on, you risk the delicate balance necessary to grow a self-sustaining eco-system. Even without centering around one type of content, there is a tendency early on for one element or group to dominate a social network eco-system, which will have the same effect as building around one piece of content. These social networks will become great potential component of a larger all-purpose social network, but will have very capped potential until there is a far greater level of social network interoperability. No one said it was easy. There will be many failed experiments littering the path to the next Myspace. Just make sure they are cheap probes (another reference for those of you have read Competing on the Edge).
As for the final piece of monetization, there is no one answer, except to say you have to first build for the community. After the community begins to establish an identity, the ability to monetize effectively can only occur through tailored solutions that provide value to the community, while achieving the goals of the advertisers. There is no way to know this until you first have a healthy community that is willing to participate in this process. That's why there is rule number 2.