Online social networking isn't just for the young, tech-savvy masses who spend hours blogging and chatting on MySpace and Facebook. Businesses also want in.
Take L.A.-based Pringo, which brings companies into the world of online community building.
It outfits company Web sites with widgets that build traffic around their brands, with options of creating personal profiles, uploading photos, and leaving reviews about products and services.
Pringo is an example of how social networking can deliver what businesses crave from customers: brand awareness and company loyalty. User-generated content invites people to linger on company Web sites, which gives them an opportunity to identify with the brand.
"Typically, users go to company Web sites, get information and leave," said Gary Hall, Pringo's president. "What we do is create an environment that invites users to stay."
Such company-centric Web environments are called enterprise social networks. Several Los Angeles tech companies are fueling growth in enterprise social networking by programming them. A handful of others have set up a version of MySpace for their own communities.
While creating online communities can be expensive and complicated, some believe they will become so widespread they will soon become as ubiquitous as e-mail.
Pringo, a 4-year-old Westside company with 18 employees, has used its sophisticated algorithms to automatically give social networking elements to 30 company Web sites, and will have completed 20 more by the end of the year. They include Yokohama Tire Corp. and 944 Magazine; Pringo also has contracts with a top online dating service and a local entertainment publishing company, but those are confidential.
Then there's Dave Networks, which adds social networking to Web sites for TV shows, such as "Price Is Right" and "America's Funniest Home Videos." It manages about 20 sites with content from ABC, CBS, MGM and Oxygen networks.
"Think of it as YouTube but around shows like 'Price is Right,'" said Rex Wong, chief executive of Dave Networks. This means the sites feature blogs, message boards and profiles, as well as showcase past episodes and behind-the-scenes shots.
Wong said advertisers are excited about this development because the shows don't have to build new audiences; they already have loyal viewers. And TV networks, always hungry for more content on their Web sites, are eager to add appropriate user-generated content.
Dave Networks, headquartered near Marina del Rey, started in 2003 as a video distributor. But since its segue into the social networking scene, its revenues have skyrocketed. It grew by five times over the past year and hit just under $10 million. It employs 25.
Social and enterprise
Since social networking moved into the mainstream with News Corp.'s $580 million acquisition of MySpace two years ago, it's become a cultural phenomenon.
In June, MySpace grew by 72 percent, adding 114 million unique visitors, compared with the same period last year. Meanwhile, Facebook ballooned by 270 percent, attracting 52 million unique visitors, according to ComScore, an online ranking service.
Enterprise Web sites are also catching on.
Johnson & Johnson has a social networking site called Baby.com, where users can leave comments about child-rearing under headings such as "my friend keeps comparing our babies." Last year, Nike teamed up with Google to launch Joga.com, a site that connects soccer fans around the world.
"Elements of social networking will eventually end up on almost all publisher Web sites," said Chris Tolles, chief executive of the Palo Alto startup Topix, an online community around local news that sees 2 million comments a month from users. "The reason is that the value of Internet is interactivity, not just distribution."
Social networking will become a widely used commodity on the Internet, he said, kind of like e-mail. In fact, he believes it will become difficult to base Web sites strictly on social networking in the future.
"We don't have a proliferation of e-mail companies, for example. Everyone just uses e-mail," Tolles said.
However, it appears social networking companies will ride this wave of popularity at least for a while. Many are hatching across the country, and some in L.A. They include:
>BadOnlineDates.com of L.A., an online community around stories of bad dates, dubbed by its founder as "MySpace meets Match.com." It employs 9.
>Faithmate.com of Santa Monica, a $2 million launch of a social networking site for Christians.
>MyJewishPortal.com, for the Jewish community.
>Ekaweeka.com of Los Feliz, a community for first-time small business owners. It employs 10.
None of the sites is cashing in yet. But the founder of Ekaweeka.com is OK with that.
"It's not my primary concern to be profitable," said Thomas Hillard, who compares his site to Craigslist, which began as a programmer's hobby.
"Right now, providing a service that is uninterrupted and free to anyone is way more important," Hillard said.
On the other hand, Docstoc.com, a local online community around sharing professional documents including business plans and estate wills, is looking for net income quickly. Launched this month, the startup is already financially backed by Internet veterans including Robin Richards, founding president of MP3.com and Brett Brewer, co-founder of Intermix Media Inc., the previous parent company of MySpace.
For companies not looking to become a social networking powerhouse, but just wanting to attract more traffic to their Web sites, getting people to interact around your brand can be more difficult than it might seem.
First, it can be expensive and time consuming. Building a site and attracting online discussions can take up to a year and a half if a company doesn't have a sophisticated tech team in house.
On the other hand, Pringo can power Web sites with social networking tools within 30 days, Hall said. But it can cost up to $100,000 to have a company like Pringo do it.
Pringo can do it quickly because the company has been building what he calls a "Web site factory" for four years, since Chief Technology Officer Harvard Young, a programmer, started the company by creating template engines for his personal use. Template engines allow Webmasters to build sites without starting from scratch each time.
Once the site has been built, the company then has to step back. It has to give up control of the content on the site.
For example, when Chevrolet launched a social networking site around its latest model of Tahoe, the company moderated the discussion by taking down all the negative comments, said David Bankston, an expert on software integration, at a recent Digital Hollywood panel on social networking.
The campaign flopped because Chevy censored its user-generated content, destroying its credibility.
Finally, companies should treat social interaction on their sites as a product itself and nurture it, Tolles said.
"The most valuable thing people have to offer is time," he said. "Money will follow time. If people are willing to spend time with you, that's the best indication of where they will put their dollars."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.