Startup your Social: Enhance Your Social Utility

Financial news of the world this week may now be sinking in amongst the hereto protected economy of the startup world. Many of us will now hold more tightly onto the purse strings in the hopes of stretching out what might be a finite runway to success. I went through this, like many, eight years ago, and the quiet that followed wasn’t much fun.

But there’s still time for many to make it work. If I were at a VC firm, or heading up a startup today, I’d look more closely now than ever at product and service differentiation. If you have now built the application, done the engineering, and established a user base, now is time to focus on social interaction design. Don’t stop at technology design. And while you might be compelled to integrate the features that are quickly becoming standard among social web applications, don’t stop there either. Think further and harder about your designing your social interactions. Your equity is in your users and how they use your product ā€” that’s the utility, personal and social, that you should leverage to distinguish yourself and capitalize on success.

Here are just a few thoughts and tips that I’ve gleaned from working with startups and from analyzing the sites I’ve used:

Users have Personalities
All users are not alike. And this is more important among social media users than in any other kind of designed product. Those users that get the most out of your site or application are the ones that will attract further growth.

In social media, for example, users have different ways of talking and communicating. They have different relationships to other users, and to audiences in general. Different ways of using and consuming information. And different perceptions of social trends. (I’m oversimplifying to keep this short.)

Personality types
Here are some personality types — you will recognize which would use your site, and for what:

Self-talkers: these are users who are comfortable talking about themselves in front of an online audience (including but not limited to friends). Posting, tweeting, and sharing are simple and straightforward ways of using social media. (Note that the vast majority of people find social media use to be somewhat narcissistic, or juvenile, and don’t connect with the self-promotion prevalent in social networking and conversation media. But they’re not our users.) These users are important content creators and activity contributors.

EmCees: these are users who get people together, who link, distribute, circulate posts and comments. They are on stage, but not to speak their own minds. Rather, they participate by acknowledging and recognizing those they respect (and often, want to be associated with). These users are important connectors and facilitators.

Mediators: these are users who are aware of “where people are at” and who attend to relationships, both their own and those of others. These users are not on stage but are active in the audience. They are important care-takers.

Critics: these users deepen conversation and forward the ideas suggested by many of the self-talkers. They explore, research, and often read more than self-talkers. Their contributions are important for the richness and discovery of social media content.

Experts: these users, like critics, go deep, but they enjoy being known as experts and protect and serve their reputations. Where a critic may be committed to truth or integrity, and to the content itself, the expert draws that content expertise around him or herself. Expert contributions are important because so many of us follow experts and their recommendations.

Inviters: Inviters use social media to maintain a family or network of people they care about enough to invite (to stuff). They mine the web for events, activities, and news and are happy to share it because it keeps them and their networks active — without drawing attention to what they themselves have to contribute. Inviters gain from distribution and are critical to the medium’s service to events.

there are more, such as jokers, seducers, organizers, and lurkers, but in the interest of time….

Use Cases
Use cases for your service fall into two categories: individual user use case and social use cases. Each is important. You probably know your individual use cases — and in fact were probably building with those in mind. They have to do with conventional uses and utility, but also include psychological payoff and reward (see above for what hooks different kinds of users).

Social use cases are more complex. Most social media promise utility in use — that is in the act of using the tool. But many also promise utility and value in what’s left behind for later consumption, e.g. by non-participants. Yelpers may enjoy reviewing and networking, but the majority of Yelp’s pageviews come from non-users. So if you have a service that leverages user participation to create content (niche vertical, topic, theme, community of practice) make sure that your social features lend themselves to high-value content for those non participants also.

Social Practices
Social practices are what come out of individual use when individual user activity is aggregated. You can offer the individual user an experience but have little control over the emergent social practices. Stories of social media engendering unintended practices abound, and if the practice you facilitate is against your business objectives, you’re in trouble. Dating or “hooking up” can kill a service that’s intended for serious use. As a lack of flirting may kill a site that is supposed to be high in emotion.

Those are just a few tips. I think social interaction design is a vastly under-stated aspect of social media — and is as important as technology on which it rests.

My slide shows on social interaction design, psychology of the user experience, and social media user competencies
Fred Wilson’s My Thoughts On “Startup Depression”
Techcrunch roundup of Startups Best Positioned To Weather A Downturn

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