Why do some social sites thrive while others fail? Why do you find some networks have you dedicating hours every day to participate, while others couldn't get you to raise an eyebrow? And why don't your friends see with you eye to eye on what the best services are, even after you've told them about your favorites time and again? The more I am exposed to new sites and social services, it becomes clear to me that there are three core elements that need to be solved to deliver a killer social service - and falling short in just one can mean rapid closure. Meanwhile, even if all three of these core elements are solved for one person doesn't mean they are solved for everyone.
These three core elements? Technology, community and relevancy.
(Though not always in that order)
Social service users want to have a flexible array of features that let them accomplish the task at hand quickly, without the user interface getting in the way. Members of social sites want the reassurance that they are working with a leading network that provides high quality tools, keeping pace with industry developments, and not growing stale with age.
If sites do not utilize current technology, not even the most ardent fans can expect to keep loyal, especially as they are reminded of alternative functionality through their ventures on the Web. In this case, solving for a strong community, even with good relevancy, is not enough.
Community can be measured in terms of both quantity and perceived quality. Only the rarest of early adopters wants to participate in a social network that doesn't have any members. Without debating what came first, the chicken or the egg, successful social networks require an active community that will deliver a regular stream of updates - keeping the service fresh and vibrant. On other occasions, visitors to a social site will find the existing community does not meet their needs, as they may have little in common.
Even the most targeted sites with top technology can fail without an evangelizing community to keep it alive. And one man's perfect community is another man's "mob", so just because it works for you doesn't guarantee runaway success.
While most of the talk around social services focuses either on technology or how to grow communities and customers, simple relevancy cannot be overlooked. The most "sticky" communities are those that center around a specific topic or group, no matter how esoteric. From the mommyblogger movement to sports or automobile discussions, being on topic is a must for growing a network.
Without the site's content or community being relevant to potential new users, they would not be likely to want to engage, barring the often misguided belief that the individual could "drag" along a critical mass of friends or followers to have serious impact on the topics being discussed.
When sites hit a two out of the three pillars, it is little better than only focusing on one of the pillars. There are precious few social services that can gain significant traction for the masses, without needing to target specific communities or derive a specific niche relevancy. And we have seen way too many sites have an interesting group of engaged people, only for the technology to look near abandonment, taking the form of a 90s-era social bulletin board or forum.
While Facebook and Twitter have much of the minds' eyes out there right now, there are many other social networks that are seeing strong engagement, tucked away due to their niche focuses. From the team of blogs at SportsBlogsNation and their resulting communities to small business sites like Ecademy, communities are building with relevancy, and some strong technology - helping them to be survivors in a world littered with failures.
I am looking at a lot of social networks these days. I am seeing frantic e-mails from slowing and dying communities asking what is next. There are some new ones I am quite fond of - but they are usually ones that solve for 2 of these 3 issues, requiring some serious help to take them to the next level. If you are manufacturing a social site, or even if you are just a frequent user, think about these three pillars: Technology, Community, Relevancy. Is the site meeting those needs, or is it falling short?