I use the term “Social Media” a lot. I make social media games, I talk about how social an application is, the term “social media” itself is the official buzz word of 2010- it seems this single term has become ubiquitous in the tech industry. The problem is, the word “social” is one of the more poorly defined and widely overused words of recent memory. The games industry had a similar catch-all term a year ago with “Casual” games (which was anything not AAA model), and I think the same problem can be applied to “Social Media”.
This kind of catch-all misnomer seems to happen when a disruptive product scales and becomes an accepted standard for that type of product. The problem is while everyone has an idea as to why the product became so successful, few actually understand it (even/especially the people who were fortunate enough to scale the product in the first place- a “right place, right time” kind of scenario). I assert that the term “Social Media” suffers from this Catch-All Misnomer Syndrome. In this post I intend to demystify the meaning of Social Media, and hopefully give some insights on how to do it “right”.
The problem with the term “Social Media” is that I don’t believe it’s an accurate description for what we do. It’s kind of close- people interact with each other… kind of. But it certainly doesn’t tell us anything about our product, or the people using it- it seems “Social Media” doesn’t really tell us anything of use at all. So it’s with this in mind I humbly offer my personal choice for a replacement for the term “Social Media”.
SOCIAL MEDIA = COMMUNITY-CENTRIC PRODUCTS
The “Community-centric product” may not sound as sexy as Social Media, but it is a term that is a lot more informative- something that can be broken down and understood. At the very core, this term is defined as a product that leverages its community. In most cases this translates to product developers using networking tools (Facebook, Twitter, forums, etc.) to interact with the products community of users. But why are they doing this? What is it that they are trying to achieve? Let’s drill down a bit deeper into what a Community-centric Product actually means, and how to go about creating a product that leverages its community of customers.
The first step to understanding a community-centric product is define what a Community is. People (me, you, your current/potential customers) have the ability to Interact with each other. As people interact, they become socially bonded to each other, effectively forming a Community. As more people are added to the interaction, the community gets bigger. In a sentence, I am defining “Community” as People Interacting at Scale.
The obvious question arises- Why are these people interacting? It seems that the only reason people would interact with each other is because of a shared interest. This interest can really be anything, from the exchange of goods and services (the shared interest being the necessitation of said exchange) to a common personal interest, such as a shared taste in music. In essence, a shared interest between people allows for a community to be formed, because it gives a reason for people to start interacting with each other.
So, we have a group of people interacting around a shared interest. But, what is the Shared Interest in the terms of a “Community-centric Product”?
YOUR PRODUCT IS THE SHARED INTEREST
Your product, the service or good you provide, appeals to customers. In other words, customers are interested in your product. A community is simply a group of people interacting around a shared interest, your product is that shared interest. Your product can be pretty much anything. In my context, the product is a game supported by a virtual economy based on microtransactions- but your product can be virtually anything, as long as satisfies three things:
i. Availability to Engage the Customer
Your product needs to be available to potential customers- this entails both getting a potential customer to realize your product exists, and being able to scale your product to meet customer demands. Entire articles can (and have) been written on both acquisition of new users and the technical problems of scaling to an exponential userbase, so I won’t go into much detail here.
ii. Trigger to Engage the Customer
When the customer knows your product exists, and you have the ability to serve the product to the customer, you have to trigger that first-time purchase. If a customer has never used your product before, its very easy for them to continue to not use it. Having the right hooks to engage the user for the first time is so important to foster a successful product. Usually this involves triggering feelings of instant gratification for the customer- as soon as they choose to engage the product, they need to feel empowered by that decision. We’ll put out future articles drilling into this subject a bit deeper (keep checking VSG, we’re always pushing new content!).
iii. Reason to Return
Finally, once you have people using your product, you usually want them to come back. This is where brand awareness, positive customer support, and product quality/stability come into play. Note that marketing also comes into effect- sometimes you’ll need to remind your customers that your product exists, and that the feeling of instant gratification will be satisfied when they reengage with the product. This is also where your customer starts to invest in the product- not just financially, but emotionally as well (This is the only brand I use for X). Satisfying this is one of the hardest things to do when establishing a product- especially for new IPs in a crowded market-space. However, this is the critical point to make for long-term growth, because this is where you can turn your customers into a community.
So, we have a product, which is a shared interest among a group of people. But how do we turn this shared interest into a shared experience- how do we get this group of people to start interacting with each other? In other words:
HOW DO WE TURN OUR PRODUCT INTO A COMMUNITY?
I posit that this is the core question that “Social Media” is trying to ask. I posit that having a Product that is driven by the community, a community-centric product if you will, is what “Social” means in todays tech industry. It is a “social experience”: defined as a group of people interacting with each other in the context of your product. But how do we do it? I offer three points that need to be satisfied in order to create a community:
i. Avenue to Express Individuality
It would seem obvious, but having an outlet to express yourself is important to creating a community. The thing YOU, the product owner, need to think about, is what that outlet is going to be. Do you use a forum? Leverage existing social networks and outlets such as Facebook/Twitter? Build your own community site with multiple forms of expression? There are risks, advantages and trade-offs for all of these options, and no one option will be perfect for every product. The general rule of thumb though, is that the more ways your customer can express themself, the better.
ii. Trigger to Assert Individuality
Similar to the importance of triggering the customer to engage your product for the first time, you also need to trigger the user to interact with the community for the first time. The difference here is that this is usually less dependent on product-side marketing, and more dependent on customers engaging each other. However, clever hooks can be implemented that rewards this user-to-user interaction. Note that this is the essence of “viral” growth, and is the core growth mechanic behind many online products.
iii. Ability to Author Individuality
Having the ability to author your expression goes hand-in-hand with being able to express yourself. The more control you give your customers, the more engaging your community becomes. Giving the customer the ability to shape their experience, the ability to craft and control content, offloads the content creation from your payroll to the community itself. You don’t need to pay someone to create a daily article, because you have customers writing the articles for you!
Notice that all of these points specifically address the individual. At each level, you need to address the personal experience of the customer. When you think about “me”, it’s usually the most important thing in the room- “my” needs, “my” opinions, “my” personality- that is what your product is interacting with. A community is simply a group of these “me’s” interacting with each other. Remember, the product will always come first- which means satisfying the needs of each customer. Forming a community around the product is supplementary. Community is a secondary goal, a potentially exponential secondary goal, but always at the will of core business needs.
To conclude, a Community is People Interacting at Scale. They are interacting around a shared interest- that interest being your product. If your product is available, scalable, and engaging, you can use it as the catalyst to form a Community around your product. Perhaps I’m missing the meaning of Social Media here, but its become such an ambiguous term that it can really mean anything relating to the internet. At the very least I think I’m on to something- Connecting People to the Product seems like an important thing to think about. I hope this helps- at the very least I hope it sparks some discussion.