Roll Your Own Social Network

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LAST MONTH I INTRODUCED the idea of using existing online social networking sites (MySpace, MeetUp, Facebook, etc.) to create a loose collection of online social experiences you can use to drive real-world, physical traffic into your dealership, as opposed to using them strictly as on-line or e-commerce selling tools.

This month I'm going to expand that idea of white label social networking platforms. White label platforms are similar to e-commerce platforms. They contain most of the features and functions you'd need to carry out the tasks that the big social networking players have. You just need to customize the look and feel of the site, maybe add on or develop some custom plug-ins for expanded functionality, and so on. Because of the extreme complexity in developing a social networking platform, this is typically a much better route than completely developing your own site from scratch.

By far, the white label platform that gets the most press is Ning (www.ning.com). One of the biggest reasons that Ning gets so much attention (and money) is that it was co-founded by Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape.

If you want to dig a little deeper, a really good resource for a comprehensive list of white label social platforms is located on Jeremiah Owyang's blog located at http://tinyurl.com/2mwa6g. A lot of them are free, some are open source, and some you'll need to pay for use.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

There are several pros and cons to creating a social networking site for your dealership versus using one or more of the existing social sites out there.

Pros: Almost complete control and flexibility to make the site do what you need it to, unique branding possibilities, harder for the competition to copy you, and your customers don't require a separate login for each site.

Cons: Can be costly (time, paying developers, or paying for a platform), and probably the biggest drawback is that it's harder to leverage the larger communities of established networkings like Facebook, MeetUp, etc.

Several initiatives like OpenSocial and Google's Friend Connect are trying to open up the Social Graph and make it more portable. The user (and more importantly, the connections that make up the user's network) no longer will be locked into networking sites like Facebook or MySpace. Each site or application will still do its own thing and serve its own purpose by using the user's social network. It may seem like a pedantic distinction, but its ramifications are huge on the social networking space, for no longer will the value of a site like Facebook be established by the mere fact that it holds the leash to a user's social network, but by what it does with that network.

Once you choose your platform, start thinking about how you want to use it to create a community around your dealership. Cram as many features, functions and tools into it so that your customers can use them under your dealership's auspices. A great example would be organizing rides. You'd want tools to allow ride organizers to be able to invite other members of the dealership's network and manage RSVPs (think MeetUp or Evite functionality). You also want functionality that would allow you to display the ride route (maybe a mash-up integration with Google Maps) and even enable participants to download the route data in various formats they can put into their GPS systems. You'll also want a message board or forum where people can discuss the ride both before and after the event. A way for people to upload ride photos and videos are also must-haves.

You could have links to all of the various existing sites like YouTube, flickr, MeetUp, on your site, and force people to go on a snipe hunt to each one for every piece of the puzzle. Or, you could use your own socially networked site and create a uniform, harmonized, customized experience for your customers where they can do everything they need or want to do under your virtual roof.