Categorized | the strategy notebook

Social networks, use analysis, and correlate analysis

I’ve gotten about a dozen emails about my last post on social networking (doesn’t anyone use the comments?), so I thought I’d elaborate more on what I mean by “correlates” to online communities.

The problem with most social network projects is that they don’t do what I call “correlate analysis.” Don’t go looking that up on Google. It’s a term and a process that I came up with in my consulting practice. However, some of the best social networking projects do some form of correlate analysis, they just don’t follow formal rules or call it by some fancy name to justify the tens of thousands of bucks they wasted on their MBA.

Correlate analysis is to social networks what user experience analysis (or use case scenarios) are to standard Web design. While user analysis focuses on what real-live users might do on a Web site, correlate analysis focuses on what communities and groups of people might do in forming and maintaining a group or community on a Web site. More after the break.

Back in the 1990′s, when the Web was in its infancy, I was one of the international “experts” in user experience and I did consulting throughout the U.S. and abroad. One of my principle areas of interest was the formation and dynamics of online groups and how they can be managed to produce educational outcomes.

Okay, that was the 1990′s and so a couple lifetimes back. When I began working with companies on social networking around 2005, I used that previous experience to come up with a formal “community experience” system I called correlate analysis. That’s just a fancy-pants way of saying that you build community formation and interaction models based on real-world correlations to real-world communities. In other words, online communities do pretty much what real-world communities do. Design the system and interface accordingly. Nothing here that a high school student couldn’t do.

The first and most important part is to identify the community in the real-world. If you’re building a Star Trek fan community, then you need to identify the Star Trek fan communities out there. If you’re building a knitting community, then you identify real-world knitting communities.

Here is where almost all of the projects I’ve been hired to consult on are going seriously wrong. And just about every cockamamy social network idea that comes down the pike, as well. These folks think that just because they can identify a group of people who have a common interest or characteristic that they’ve lighted on a “community.” Like the social network for “hair loss lifestyle” I dissed a couple days ago. Big dreams aside, just because a whole lot of guys have lost their hair doesn’t mean they’re a community. The “Hair Club for Men” sells hair, guys, it’s not a cigar-chomping watering hole for the hair-challenged.

The same applies to the gingivitis lifestyle or the ingrown toenail lifestyle or the pick-your-boogers lifestyle. In each of these, there’s a population, but no communities (and, arguably, no lifestyle if by that term you mean a “culture” or “subculture”).

The problem with not having a real-world community is that you have no real-world correlates to build your online community. You are, as it were, making it up. What do I mean by real-world correlates? It’s not hard, really. The real-world community correlates answer the questions who, what, where, when, why, and how these communities form. Who makes up the community? Where does the community come together? When does the community form? Why? What forms does it take? What does the community actually do? What individuals do when they gather? Why do people do those things?

Once you have the answers to those questions, you have the means to provide group-formation or community-formation tools that meet the needs and expectations of your targetted users. When the online tools fit the community, you have what I call a “fissile” social networking site — one that allows for a user “chain reaction.” It’s the “chain reaction” that separates the successful social networking sites from the also-rans.

I have done an in-house study of ten highly successful online communities (not the big bruisers like Twitter, but highly specialized communities that dominate their particular user segment). A correlate analysis on each of these online communities shows that they reproduce fairly completely the who, what, where, why, and how of the real-world communities.

Correlate analysis (or whatever you want to call it, make up a name) is as critical to a social networking site as user experience analysis. I can literally guarantee you that if you can’t find a real-world community with strong, identifiable real-world correlates (who, what, why, where, when, how), you’re building it, but they won’t come. No chain reaction. Just a dud.

I could go on for pages (as I have in other places), but you get the idea. If you’re building a social network, don’t leave home without it.

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