Webware trends: Social networking to build brand loyalty

Companies start jumping on the social networking bandwagon, and other companies start jumping on the bandwagon to create them.

The phenomenon of branded social networks was thrown into the spotlight back in January when Disney CEO Bob Iger unveiled the company's revamped Web site complete with MySpace-like features (or kid-safe, Disneyfied versions thereof). And there's been plenty of talk recently about how small is the new big (to use Seth Godin's words) when it comes to social networks: that sites centered around a specific niche or subculture will be the next major trend, as opposed to enormous, all-encompassing, and arguably cluttered sites like MySpace. From what we've been seeing, this push toward niche social networking is getting some extra momentum thanks to brands that are seeing online community-building as an effective way to build brand loyalty and improve its marketing strategies.

Recently we've seen a few new developments in this sector of social networking which seem to confirm that branded communities are on the rise. You have to remember that plenty of companies have been striking deals with big social networks like MySpace and Facebook--Apple, for example, runs a "group" on Facebook that numbered over 435,000 members at last count. But some companies want to host their own branded social networks, and start-ups are beginning to, well, start up for that purpose.

We wrote up Dave.tv last month; Dave.tv's parent company, Dave Networks, specializes in creating video-based social networking communities, like one for the TV show Stargate that features fan-made videos. Earlier this week, another one launched--Passenger, a platform that aims to "create collaborative relationships" between brands and their consumers through online social networks. Passenger is aiming high, explicitly expressing a desire to appeal to Fortune 500 clients. And its vision of a company-consumer feedback network is probably a bit utopian, as many corporations are likely going to prefer that their social networks consist of loyal followers rather than constructive critics. But Passenger has already attracted the likes of Coca-Cola and ABC Television, so it's probably doing something right.

The catch is that no brand can count on the collective power of the masses. The classic example of this--well, by "classic," I mean "over six months old"--is the Chevy Tahoe user-generated ad contest. General Motors gave Internet users the basic tools to make their own Tahoe ads, but liberal bloggers and grassroots environmental groups managed to turn the contest on its head and make "ads" to promote global warming awareness and criticize the culture of gas-guzzling SUVs.

GM probably didn't see that one coming.

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