The year 2006 will be earmarked as a time when 'social networking' fuelled a second web mania.
But if last year saw a honeymoon period, 2007 could bear witness to some grave e-business casualties if too many jump in gung ho. For example Ecademy, one of the world's first online social networks predicts some nasty libel cases if sites don't set rules and values from the outset. Last year saw an unprecedented hunger for social networking web sites, with You-Tube being snapped up for 1 billion, and myspace forging links with Google. This trend looks likely to grow in 2007. Only success could be short-lived for businesses that think it's as simple as mimicking the social network phenomenon, Ecademy.com warns.
The site, mooted as the myspace for business people and entrepreneurs, was set up nine years ago, braved the dot.com crash of 2000 and now attracts more than 6,000 new members a month to its social network. It's been built privately, with its owners having hands-on experience in developing its legacy.
One of Ecademy's founders, Penny Power, believes the key to building a successful social network, is building emotional connections and a real sense of community. A website that just wows you with flashy tools will lose its appeal fast.
"Tools are just fads, communities and friendships evolve. Social networks have to become communities, and in order to do that they require a culture and values," Power comments.
"What people want is intimacy and friendship not just contacts. Being a name on a contact list is no different from being a business card in a rollodex," comments Power. "Knowing who you can learn from is what matters and what social networks should be about," she adds. The comment backs reports in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, which urge companies to exploit the web in order to make customers feel involved.
Ecademy.com even extends this policy to its banner advertising, so there are rewards for members. One such example is its link with Zubka, a recruitment agency. Members can earn commission from placing friends in jobs. While another company, MWB Business Exchange offers discounted office space. This reflects the growing importance to brands of social networks and their awareness that they can't purely use them as advertising space but must engage with the community.
Ecademy's Predictions for the future of Social Networking Founders Penny and Thomas Power have put together the following predictions for the Social Networking Boom in 2007:
Jumping in: Tool-based sites such as LinkedIN and Xing are moving towards building online communities with the introduction of facilities such as blogging.
In on the Act: The appeal of social networks will become so irresistible that most major business will try and buy into it in some way. Brands from all sectors will want to integrate into a pool of primed customers. Television companies are already encouraging viewers to post comments on plot-lines in soap opera (ITV's Emmerdale) and Kleenex has just launched a campaign with TV adverts encouraging online interaction from customers. Choose A Platform: Social networks will become a sought-after method of tapping into niche markets. Companies will want to buy into them either for selling to, or recruiting its users. Facebook already has channels seeking staff for Microsoft and Ernst and Young. Ecademy has just made links with Zubka.
Stamping Out Anti Social Networks: The role of the Social Network is to act as facilitators of relationships, with the responsibility of ensuring that message boards, Blogs and postings are courteous and professional. Unmonitored social networks can sadly be used for anti social behaviour. Penny predicts that as brands race to launch social networks, online libel cases will surge this year with message boards, blogs, and postings providing web users the opportunity to degrade the reputation of people and companies. Ecademy advises websites to not overlook this and urges tight safeguards, such as a clear code of practice. Social Responsibility is key in this marketplace as the repercussions of ignoring this are enormous for the individual taking part and the network owners.
In the interest of keeping members on Ecademy safe from antisocial behaviour of any kind Ecademy has a clear set of rules that all members are asked to adhere too called the Best Practice Guide.
Small groups mean big business: Small groups and 'clubs' will be the web buzz words of 2007. A chance to be part of a big network, but within the intimacy of a club or chat room, will drive web users to return to the same site more often, by building an emotional connection. Users will form strong allegiances to these clubs, just as they do with football clubs. More websites will offer users a chance to form clubs, as a way of building intimacy. Ecademy has operated a free club-building function for four years.
Grown Up Networking: The social networking Web 2.0 revolution has been led so far by the kids but 2007 will see the over 35s getting on board. The is BBC rumoured to be introducing social networking sites for viewers of top brand shows such as Top Gear, Radio Times and BBC Good Food. An indication of the growing importance of social networks to adults is Ecademy's membership profile. Ecademists (Ecademy members) tend to be 35+, self employed with a family. Through this profile members support each other with their home, social and business life, confirming Ecademy's purpose to increase members' emotional and financial wealth.