Things are moving fast in the world of social networks. Every day it seems MySpace is adding features that mimic Facebook-like functionality, and Facebook is adding features (or apps) that make Facebook look more like MySpace. I have a MySpace account that I use 95% for connecting with friends and family; a Facebook account that is 35% friends and family, and 65% professional; and a LinkedIn account that is 95% professional connections. There is overlap across all three. I have an ASmall World account I have yet to build out my network on (if you're on ASW, Facebook, or LinkedIn, shoot me a connection request and reference this Spin so I know how you found me). But what is the future of social networks as more niche social networks come into play and strong players like MyYearbook, Buzznet and Bebo continue to grow? Where does a marketer place his or her bets?
First, people need to stop "starting to think about 'what's next' before they've figured out 'what's now,'" as Ian Schafer puts it in his blog. Ian makes this statement as a reaction to the idea that some marketing executives are beginning to question the relevance of MySpace as other "hipper" social networks come into play. I couldn't agree with Ian more. Questioning the relevance of MySpace is truly ludicrous; I find it hard to believe any marketer trying to reach the 14- to 28-year-old demo would really question MySpace's relevance in a marketing plan because they have yet to figure out how to tap into the medium, and therefore must simply play it off as "old news." Consider that research firms OTX and Intelligence Group studying teens are asking "How happy are you with your appearance on Online [e.g. MySpace]?" right alongside "How happy are you with the way you look?" (By the way, teens were happier with how they looked on MySpace than they were about their health, their grades and their relations with family members, just to name a few.)
So don't start crossing networks off because they aren't "hot" right now -- because the big guys aren't going anywhere. And don't let your agency sell you that bill of goods, either. So your future media plans will include the major social networks as well as a number of the other communities that people you want to reach have decided to call home online. This doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel for every community you want to enter. Part of building a great social media plan is that it should be applicable across social networks, with some (warning: some has very different meanings depending on the social networks you are working with) alterations.
This brings us to the infamous developer platforms, another popular "what's next" for social networks. I can't name a social network that isn't working on its own developer platform. I have never seen such anxiousness to enable the distribution of applications that serve little purpose (other than to annoy, if you read this Time article) -- and generate even less cash. But we can hope, both as marketers and members of social network communities, that something will be done and the goat-throwing, the biting and the mindless gifting of digital nothings will work its way out. Because it is in social networks' ability to open up to developers adding value to their communities, rather than spamming their communities, that brands can be a more valued participant in the conversation.
What's next for social networks? More of the same. It's still a medium working itself out. Brands will play a huge role in developing social networks by adding value to the communities, the same way they have in the high school cafeteria that has been the real world for decades. What else is next for social networks?