Pondering The Comcast-Plaxo Deal

I'm not the biggest user of Plaxo you'll ever find, but an email from Plaxo yesterday definitely got my attention: it's that the networking site is being bought by Comcast, the cable operator that everyone loves to hate. (Well, maybe hate less now that Frank Eliason has come to the rescue. )

A cable operator buys a social network. Hmmmm. If you've been following Plaxo and Comcast for awhile -- and I admit, I haven't -- you'd know that Plaxo and Comcast have been flirting with each other lately. In fact, Plaxo hosts Comcast's Webmail service and has been helping Comcast integrate its services. Obviously, being owned by Comcast gives Plaxo potentially much broader reach, and maybe much deeper reach, which it probably could use with Facebook, MySpace and a few niche nets taking up so much of the headlines and the average social networker's time these days.

This makes Comcast's plan to integrate Plaxo more deeply into its services all the more intriguing. The deal gives Plaxo the possibility to truly differentiate itself. Right now, if my own behavior is any indication, it's an add-on social net rather than a must-have. Maybe for those of us who are already networked, it will remain that way, but the first component of the Comcast/Plaxo plan is to broaden the overall base of social media users. "There's a real opportunity to bring social media mainstream," explains Plaxo's vice president of marketing, John McCrea. Plaxo is saying that it has already doubled its reach to 50 million accounts (admittedly, only some may be very engaged), since it started working with Comcast. With Comcast marketing Plaxo services it to its subscriber base, that number should shoot up even more.

Second, the deal is supposed to make content much more shareable, so that, in an example from its official statement, users of Plaxo's Pulse social network can post photos to their account and let their friends and family see them on any platform. To some extent, that example misses one of the most important rationales for making the acquisition, which is so that Comcast can increase viewership of the large amounts of professional video it has licensed.

As for Comcast, owning a social network that is truly integrated with its other services is a great way to increase its stickiness, to use a term that strikes me as very Web 1.0. "Part of the vision here is to create a better, useful, cross-media experience for Comcast customers," explains McCrea. All of us are bombarded with ad messages about who has the better "triple play" --  the phone company or the local cable operator. If, through Plaxo, Comcast is able to build in new features that aren't readily copied by the phone companies, it could turn a triple play into a home run instead.

(Columnist's note: I said last week that I'd be writing more about the business model for niche social nets this week, but due to an email snafu, I didn't get to finish reporting that column in time for deadline. Stay tuned.)

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