There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks about the potential disruptiveness of the new social network Ello, which promises an ad-free alternative to Facebook and has been garnering a surprising degree of attention from users, in no small part due to its invite-only beta and provocative message. It is a site with intentionally mysterious founders and a manifesto, which reads in part: “We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life. You are not a product.”
Ello has come in for a fair degree of criticism for the naïveté of its business model, (hoping users will voluntarily pay for special features), the clunkiness of its user interface, and what one might call the lack of scalability inherent in its idealistic vision. What’s really surprising, though, in the coverage thus far is the binary nature of the discussion, as though taking on Facebook were the only possible route to Ello’s success. Certainly Ello itself has invited that discussion by taking aim squarely at Facebook, but if you ignore their positioning for a moment, it is easy to imagine a new social network taking shape within what is already a large and varied space. We have interconnected blogging on Tumblr and WordPress; anonymous social sharing on Whisper and Secret; a huge menu of forum-based discussions on Reddit; mobile networking on Snapchat and Instagram; media-based sharing on Pinterest and YouTube; local tips on Foursquare and Yelp; business networking on LinkedIn and Alignable; the list goes on and on. We’ve even had more than one experiment in Ello-style “pure” social networking, such as Diaspora and Socl. Surely there is room for another niche social network or two dedicated to those who would rather not be bombarded by advertising, whether or not Ello answers that need.
Still, it’s likely that most users, even as they may also subscribe to niche services, will remain with Facebook for the time being, given that Facebook has been largely successful, despite constant grumblings among users and commentators, at keeping advertising on the periphery of our attention. Like it or not, as consumers of free services we have been raised on the broadcast television model, and have come to expect that advertising inevitably comes along for the ride, especially so for large mainstream services such as Facebook has definitively become.
Nevertheless, small business owners, as Greg Sterling has recently observed, may find themselves perplexed by the variety of opportunities to engage socially with consumers. As large brands flock to Ello, they may even feel pressure to follow suit. Of course, it would be premature to suggest that any SMB needs an Ello marketing strategy, even were such a thing not expressly contrary to the stated intentions of the site. But the sketch I’ve just offered of the varieties of social networking makes it clear that there’s an advantage to be gained in keeping your marketing strategy attuned to the groups actively pursuing interests relevant to your business.
This doesn’t mean, though, that an effective SMB marketing strategy must chase desperately after the latest fad. On the contrary, it pays to watch and wait until such time as a network has grown beyond its infancy and offers a broad enough target demographic to be worth your while.
And depth beats breadth, though both can be strategically important. If you have the time to create a basic business profile on every site where consumers might be searching for a business like yours, or if you hire a company who can make that happen for you, you’re more likely to be found in basic searches, greatly improving your exposure. But social networking is all about engagement. A business that finds two or three social networks, or even one, that matters most to its target consumer, and concentrates on creating engaging content and maintaining an active and responsive presence, will find greater success than one that spreads attention thinly across several sites.
There’s arguably little value in existing on a social network at all unless you have the time to be an active user. I would make something of an exception for Facebook and Google+ Local, where even mere presence will help guarantee you are found by users performing local searches; but even on those sites, the most successful businesses are those who work hard to become an active part of the social community. Social marketing at its most effective will not take the form of contextual advertising on the periphery of the conversation, but will be part of the conversation itself.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.