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Packaged social network platforms help manage, grow online communities

You could piece together Web 2.0 apps, but packaged social network platforms come with tools to help you manage and encourage discussion. One firm saw its community grow by 1,600%.

As midmarket companies seek to create social networks that bring together customers, prospects and other constituents, CIOs have a variety of technology options, from free online communities to robust software platforms that offer built-in infrastructures and tools for managing, monitoring and moderating online communities.

On the free side are established social networking websites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. The benefit: Employees and customers are likely already familiar with these providers, which are growing more versatile.

Another approach involves putting together your own platform from various tools. A number of companies have created support communities using Confluence, Atlassian Software Systems Pty Ltd.'s wiki platform, in combination with discussion threads, said Mike Cannon Brookes, the social networking software firm's CEO. The wiki provides a regularly updated, permanent knowledge base, while the discussions provide a more dynamic question and answer format.

However, Gartner Inc.'s Anthony Bradley, a managing vice president at the research firm, recommends that CIOs at midmarket organizations consider packaged social network platforms. A Gartner "magic quadrant" of social software providers shows more than 30 providers in this space, and classifies most of them as niche providers.

One of the most important features of such platforms is the ability to sort through hundreds or even thousands of group exchanges and zero in on the valuable ideas, feedback and comments in order to propagate them -- to other members of the community, or to the sponsoring company's sales or marketing or research and development (R&D) staff.

K12.com, which provides online education software and classes to some 55,000 full-time students around the globe, launched an online social networking site four months ago to connect its students, parents and teachers, who lack of the traditional ways to socialize that are available in a physical educational setting. "One of our biggest challenges was social disconnection," said Celia Stokes, the Herndon, Va.-based company's chief marketing officer.

The organization "knew we wanted Web 2.0 capabilities like chatting, IM, friending and widgets that allow us to plug in profiling and discussion boards," Stokes said. However, with a customer base growing about 40% per year, "we also wanted a platform that was reliable and scalable."

It chose Jive Software's Clearspace Community, and now offers discussion boards, video and writing contests and other fun group activities. The site also provides a "faculty lounge," where about a thousand teachers can share ideas, solve problems, provide mutual support and "blow off steam," Stokes said.

"The hunger for this was beyond our wildest expectations," she said. Participation is now close to 100%.

It's the concept of turning an online community into an extension of your sales force, or your marketing or R&D team.

Anthony Bradley, managing vice president, Gartner Inc.

The K12.com community has also generated creative and useful ideas and feedback, resulting in more competitive products, improved teacher performance and enhanced customer satisfaction, Stokes said. "We have a student panel and a parent panel that give us feedback on curriculum, the teaching tools we roll out and our intervention programs," she said.

Video game maker Electronic Arts Inc. (EA) used Jive's packaged social network platform to remodel its online community, creating virtual subspaces with the same look and feel as each EA game brand. Nine months later, the community had grown by 1,600%, representing a huge boost in brand loyalty.

"The most important administrative features [of Jive's Clearspace], no question, have been multilevel security, easy account management and the ability to highlight messages and great stats," former EA senior community manager Nathan Fahrenthold said in a recent interview published on Jive's website.

In sum, online social networks that are properly managed and endowed with a specific purpose can become invaluable sources of ideas, feedback and expertise, said Gartner's Bradley. "It's the concept of turning an online community into an extension of your sales force, or your marketing or R&D team." And midmarket companies must embrace the concept "in order to compete with the big guys."

Elizabeth Horwitt is a contributing writer based in Waban, Mass. Write to her at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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