Tools for encouraging user interation with a brand
Howdy y’all, first of all some good news. I received the results from my dissertation yesterday and I’m very proud to say that I’ve achieved an MSc with merit in Professional Sound & Video Technology! Special thanks to the University of Salford and Alex Fenton at the Hive for helping me get there. I might have another project to add to my Hive space soon; and on a related note, onto the main part of this post…
How do you encourage users to interact and contribute opinions and content to a network?
As part of my dissertation, I wanted to know the feasibility of people using their phones to contribute UGC online from an event; this was, for the most part, a technical exercise to see whether or not the technology was “there” and usable. However, I was always wondering what the best way of fostering these interactions would be. Obviously it’s not something that happens overnight, but there has to be a space in place online for this content to aggregate. For my specific project I was most interested in speed over quality; but what is the best platform to let users (customers, fans, advocates etc.) have their say, communicate with the brand and each other, and post content? And how would one go about fostering these actions?
The role of Facebook
OK, so using Facebook for this kind of thing is so obvious that it’s almost embarrassing to bring it up. To me, this seems like almost a lazy way of doing it, but if you think about it, it could be powerful if done correctly. Facebook is part of most internet user’s everyday life (if you believe this infographic posted on Mashable.com), and utilising a Facebook fan page is an easy way to casually feed information to “fans” – although “fans” are really people who happen to have clicked “like” once. It’s an easy way to spread the word about contests, promotions, news, and of course foster discussions on the page itself.
But how loyal do you really have to be to click “like” on Facebook? Are you ever likely to pay much attention to all those updates or ever really visit the page? Maybe, but nevertheless, it’s still stuck within the walls of Facebook and to me feels a bit uninspired. To me, it seems like a dedicated site or network running in parallel to Facebook would be a better demonstration of the brand’s dedication to its fans’ opinions or contributions.
Saying that, I can’t help but call upon trusty World Wrestling Entertainment to counter my own point; they created a dedicated social network in late 2008 called “WWE Universe”, with the capacity for users to have discussions, post blogs and so on. However, the WWE launched a fan page on Facebook and encouraged its wrestlers to use Twitter in early 2010; these have proven so popular (15 million fans on Facebook) that the WWE Universe site was closed on January 1st 2011. As someone who occasionally looked at WWE Universe, I have to say it wasn’t the most engaging website in the world; it was pretty cluttered. There must be something better out there…?
White Paper (Software as a service) vs. Standalone Software
In setting up a social network, without scripting the whole thing from nothing (something I’m certainly not qualified to do), there are two main paths to go down. You can either use an all-in service who host your network for a monthly subscription cost, as well as developing the software it runs on (like WordPress.com, which is what this blog runs on… although, yes, WordPress.com is free), or you can download the standalone software and upload it to your own server, or integrate it this way into your own site (like WordPress.org, which is more flexible than WordPress.com).
In the first category, where the company hosts the site for you, the market leader with hundreds and thousands of networks under its belt is Ning. It features many customisable base themes and seems easy to modify. Competitors include Kickapps and Wall.fm, which offer different benefits based on the ease of customisation and so forth.
In the other category, where you host the software on your own server and the software itself is free and in most cases open-source, leaders include Drupal, Elgg, BoonEx Dolphin and Buddypress. I think the advantage here is that, if you already have a site in place, these can be used to add the social media network functionality into them, especially since your own site usually equals your own pre-existing web hosting service.
As it stands, I’m currently most interested in Buddypress. It’s built upon WordPress, as the name might suggest, except with more community-based features added in. A good example is Ooizit, a music-sharing network for bands and fans. It allows people to make connections, similar to what something like MySpace eventually became, but with a cleaner, WordPress-ised feel and functionality.
Considering the power of WordPress, and the fact I have a degree of experience using it, I am favouring BuddyPress right now. I would love to play around with it and see what’s possible. And going back to the role of Facebook – well, one could always use Facebook Connect to allow users to log in with their Facebook account and share links to their Facebook walls from a separate (BuddyPress-based?) social network.
Next time I’ll hopefully have more developed thoughts and talk more about how these tools can actually be used to get people to contribute!