• Building a Facebook for IT

    As more businesses jump on the social media bandwagon and look at the power of branded customer communities, we’ve seen the emergence of a new class of Social Business Networks.

    While LinkedIn or even Quora might immediately come to mind, with the success of online media – think TechCrunch, TechTarget, etc. and developer and support communities in high-tech, the potential for building a specialty Facebook for IT just may be the killer app for B2B social media.

    In fact, some companies have already started down this path, with some impressive early results.  Two examples are TopCoder, a global community for software developers, and Spiceworks, a Social Business Network for SMB IT pros that has already attracted 1.6 million members.

    The appeal of IT-oriented Social Business Networks is two-fold.  For users, it’s all about being a one-stop shop and trusted source of information, tools, community and commerce.  For advertisers and vendors, it’s about assembling an interested audience, having a built-in user community, and facilitating discussions with users that can inform product directions and provide market insights – all in a natural and social way.

    Social Meets Business

    An active community, useful functionality, and good content drive the success of all social networks.  This is especially the case with Social Business Networks.  At the same time, an active, engaged and qualified B2B community may be ripe for social commerce and group deals with the regularity of business transactions (monthly subscriptions, replacement part etc.) and the community-nature of many ‘highly-considered’ purchases.

    So, what are the key ingredients for building this type of specialty Facebook for IT?  Using Spiceworks and a few other examples (TechTarget, Quora) for inspiration, I see four key components:

    • Advice and discussions – via forums, expert location and instructional content.  The platform could also include a knowledge base for structured content
    • Management tools – helping users track their assets, projects, and other resources is a key value-add for an IT-focused platform
    • Third-party apps – such as tools for collaboration and security, or cloud services like hosted email.  Integrating these functions which IT pros use daily, can increase use and provide sponsorship opportunities
    • Social commerce – via reviews, catalogs and integrated e-commerce, along with Groupon-like social deals and even group RFQ sourcing.  A marketplace with vendor pages could be structured similar to company pages in Facebook as well.

    In practice, users are likely to ‘come for the apps/tools, and stay for the community,’ so it’s essential to lead with productivity apps and management tools, and fill out more advanced social and collaboration when the demand is there.  This is similar to how Spiceworks started with free network management tools and has built out additional social networking capabilities over time.

    Finding the Right Balance

    Regardless of the starting point, providing great/unique and engaging content like forums and video webinars is essential, which drives adoption, and word of mouth as users interact with it, and share with their friends.  Which drives more adoption, and more content, and builds the community and so on.  Layering on social deals is also a great way to grow the community and foster word of mouth outside of the network.

    Building a practical Facebook for IT also requires a balanced approach, where there is value for buyers and sellers, and the right mix of enterprise scale and security vs. consumer ease-of-use, and user-generated content vs. sponsored content and advertising.  Something that has long been the case in enterprise software in the first case, and the world of media in the latter.

    Finding this balance and offering the components outlined above should provide an environment that is appealing and valuable to business users and their companies, and also attractive to advertisers and vendors.  Which is a win-win for all camps.

    Allen Bonde is CMO at The Pulse Network, co-founder and an advisor to Offerpop, and an advisor to Spiceworks. He has spent the past 20 years as an analyst, consultant and IT marketer at firms including KANA Software, McKinsey and the Yankee Group.  Follow him on Twitter at @abonde.

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