Without social networks products will wither and die

By Mark Everett Hall
March 03, 2009 8:22 AM EST

Every page on the Worldwide Web is about to get its own social network. Naturally, the service will be free.

This morning at the DEMO Conference in Palm Springs Kutano Corp. will show its eponymous social networking tool now in public beta. The Burnaby, B.C.-based startup has a plug-in for Windows users of Firefox and Internet Explorer that lets visitors to a Web site leave commentary on any page that can be read by anyone else with the plug-in. (Linux and Mac users will get a Firefox plug-in in Q2.)

CEO Kevin Ishiguro says he hopes Kutano will foster intelligent discussions on a given subject by leaving out the threaded give-and-take that are common on many forums. He says by keeping the comments focused on the subject as opposed to observations by other commenters Kutano will be more useful. Commenters will rate and recommend each other, with the cream presumably rising to the top.

Ishiguro hopes that a distributed form of Wikipedia will emerge across the Web as informed and refined discussions blossom.

That's possible. It's also possible that Kutano will lead to scathing reviews left on vendors' Web pages where no product discussions had been planned, sending IT scrambing to block the plug-in. And I can envision other unintended consequences of Kutano's plug-in. But that's not what interests me most about it. What's fascinating about Kutano is its logical necessity.

While chatting with David Vap, vice president of products at RightNow Technologies Inc. in Bozeman, Mont. for a story on iRobot, he observed that vendors are often wary of letting any Web denizen post comments about products on their sites. Vendors want to control the message about what they sell, meaning only hosannas can be written about their wares, especially on the company's own site.

Kutano's plug-in undermines that effort totally. And, if what Vap and I discussed is close to the truth, that's a good thing.

He said watching social networks grow around products and services is crucial for companies in this day and age. And, with the exception of patently false and misleading information along with vulgarity, Vap argues, vendors are wise to let the commentary flow freely.

He reasons that products that cannot build communities of passionate users may not have markets to serve. If you can get droves of users to visit your site and make their thoughts known--from constructive criticism to promotional paens--you're likely to be perceived as having a successful product or service.

Although Vap would not go so far as to conclude that if a vendor's offering could not interest any commentary it needed to be deep-sixed, he did say the company might consider killing it before the move becomes all-too-obvious.

Vap also pointed out that engaging users need not be limited to complex or even new products. He noted that General Mills has created a fairly active social network around Cheerios. Who knew there was so much to say about a breakfast cereal that's been around since 1941? Apparently quite a bit, especially from users who care deeply about what they eat.

CIOs should be sitting down with their marketing executives to determine how they want their social networking service to work for their customers. If they don't, Kutano (or a company like it) will create that service for them anyway.



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