Interview: What's the Difference Between a Community Building Site and a Social Network?

Facebook and Twitter may be the "hot" social networks today, but where is the ever-changing trend headed tomorrow? Take a look at community-building sites, specialized sites built on not just a common interest, but a common purpose. How do they differ from social networks? Where is the trend headed? Can your average Internet user really build their own social network?For those answers and more, follow our conversation with Alex Holliday, a pioneer in the field of online community-building, and one of the founders of SocialGo, a London-based company that builds issue-driven social networks for groups, businesses and individuals.

Facebook and Twitter may be the “hot” social networks today, but where is the ever-changing trend headed tomorrow? Take a look at community-building sites, specialized sites built on not just a common interest, but a common purpose. How do they differ from social networks? Where is the trend headed? Can your average Internet user really build their own social network?

For those answers and more, follow our conversation with Alex Halliday, a pioneer in the field of online community-building, and one of the founders of SocialGO, a London-based company that builds issue-driven social networks for groups, businesses and individuals.

Social Times: What is the difference between a community building site and a social network?

AH: A social networking site, like Facebook or Twitter is a platform which contains millions of members, businesses and groups where everyone makes their own individual connections and creates their own social graph within the larger ecosystem. A community-building platform allows people to create stand-alone websites completely focused, customized and tailored to the needs of that community. By focusing on a single topic/brand/interest, the quality of content is higher, you are in more control of the experience and you are not locking yourself into a single platform. You also own all of monetization opportunities and importantly all of your data.

Social Times: What is SocialGO, and what can it do for individuals looking to create their own networks?

AH: SocialGO is a service that lets people create their own social networking websites for the group, business or interest. The service starts at $24.99/m for the self-service version and $149.99/m for the Concierge service where we guide and help you through the whole process. Concierge is a bit like having your hand held through the whole process, which is great for busy people, or those who aren’t sure of how to execute a niche social network.

Social Times: Who or what is your typical client?

AH: You could not put 10 of our customers in the same industry, we have people in pretty much every vertical in over 100 countries in the world. We are starting to be used by more big brands like Hilton Hotels, Wal-Mart and the BBC who are using it for specific projects they are rolling out. We also have loads of small communities such as churches, sport groups and education networks. It’s always surprising what people are creating on the platform using the API and their own ingenuity.

Social Times: What are the keys to building a successful community site?

AH: Firstly define why you are doing it, your own “KPI’s,” or success criteria, are key. Secondly, choose a good platform and tailor it to your users. Thirdly, seed it with people you trust, who understand the subject matter and will give you feedback on it honestly. This could be as few as five people. Fourthly, slowly open up the community and add features as it grows in size, don’t start day 1 with every feature turned on otherwise it will not get traction. Finally, work hard at communicating with your members, make people feel special, keep the content quality up. It takes work but is immensely rewarding.

Social Times: How has interest changed since you founded the company in 2007, specifically in the U.S. market?

AH: The U.S. is our largest market accounting for 60 percent of revenue at the moment with the U.K. in second place. Generally speaking we have seen things change immensely; when we started this business “social” was a niche class of website. It is now a layer which permeates everything we do on our phones, online and even on TV. Alongside Facebook, social networking platforms like SocialGO are going to become the centerpiece of the social age. People are more aware of the importance of social media in their business and are coming to our service more clued up than ever. We are releasing a new version of SocialGO later this year (http://sgv2.com/) which we see as redefining the social platform for 2011. I think we are going to see a lot of innovation in the next 18 months and we hope to be leading the way with our new platform.

Social Times: Will community-building sites make social networks obsolete?

AH: Social networks are the telephone book, you need to be in there, but it isn’t the be all and end all. We see our role as allowing people to leverage the best bits from services like Facebook or Twitter, but on their own terms. Growth in the last few years has been within the big platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, but as these platforms open up their APIs, businesses, groups, causes etc can start to create their own social websites which curate the best of the social web in a completely customized experience. It’s very exciting as we are on the verge of a big growth spurt on the social web. Facebook and company are not going to stop growing, but a big chunk of their growth is going to be inside platforms like ours.

Social Times: What are the problems, or pitfalls, associated with social networks?

AH: Like any social interaction, online or offline, there are always risks involved so kids specifically should be educated about how they should be using social networking services. More generally though, they lack focus and purpose other than “catching up” on what your friends are up to. This lack of focus leads to loads of low quality content which, although being highly addictive, is not particularly productive. The niche website gives people a purpose to the communication and a great way to interact with people who would not normally be in your friends circle. These niche sites then feed back out to the social network so you are getting the best of both worlds.

Social Times: How do you envision the future, or trajectory, of community-building on the Web?

AH: I see the “Social Website” being the future of micro-social networking. Now that the whole web is becoming ‘social’ and ‘networked’, the term “social networking website” no longer feels appropriate. I think that people who set out to create a form of website will want it to be social, connected and interactive. This means that the industry that we are in is moving from being a niche to being the primary way that groups and businesses represent themselves online. It’s exciting to see this shift happening and we look forward to our next release later this year to reinforce our position as a leading platform in this emerging space.