March 2008 - Online Strategies

Social Media Vendor Selection Guide

By Aaron Kahlow

Selecting a social media vendor is about as difficult a task there is these days for marketing professionals. It’s a nascent industry without any established leaders with a plethora of technologies and a mix of service, integration and features, which makes it hard to find one company that can help with your social networking and social media needs. Here are some guidelines to make your search easier.

Strategy consulting. Most companies and marketing departments base their strategy on intuition and opinion, or they lean on their agency of record to validate it (when most agencies have little social networking experience). It is paramount to work with someone who has done this time and time again. He or she can steer you away from the pitfalls and enlighten you as to what works and what doesn’t.
Information architecture (IA). Mapping out how users will connect, what the flow of information will be and how all elements in the very fluid environment of a social network will interrelate is something that many pass over quickly. But your design will have no foundation without the right sitemaps, wireframes and IA.

Database architecture. Organizing and repurposing data is a challenge and should not be overlooked-this is usually the difference between a good social network and one that merely looks good until it’s actually put to use. You need to be able to correlate similar traits among members and surface that data to make recommendations; the database structure and logic to get meaningful results can be very tricky.

Custom development. Custom development is comprised of: 1) Taking in disparate data sources and tying them into your master social networking platform and 2) Developing custom features not already found in your chosen platform. Every social network should be unique to its target audience, so there is no platform that has anticipated all your needs, especially in the infancy of social media.

Baseline platform and supporting technology. When I last researched platforms, I found over 20 platforms that, at first glance, looked like they could meet my needs. None did. The big question is whether to build it yourself or use one that’s already built. If you just want to see how you can connect customers and extract valuable insight from them, then an out-of-the-box solution is the way to go. But if you are looking to create a lasting community, the build-it-yourself option is much more viable since you’ll never be able to predict what will be needed six months from launch, let alone six years.

Custom build-out takes longer and has support challenges when code breaks or something goes wrong. Out-of-the box platforms have a much shorter time to market, little flexibility but not a lot of flexibility in making changes.

In the final analysis, social networking and the supporting technologies are evolving so fast it’s nearly impossible to pick the perfect solution. But like most of us in social media say, “Better to try, learn and re-launch, then wait for the perfect answer. It will never come.”

Aaron Kahlow is managing partner of BusinessOnLine and chairman of the Online Marketing Summit. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].


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