What’s in it for me? Why people participate in social networking websites

Now that we’re all super excited about social media, and every man and his dog wants to do *something* to do with social networking, it seems a pertinent time to ask… but why?

Why does the world need your product or service to include ‘something social’? Why on earth would you want to create a *new* social networking service? Why does the world need another place to go and try to find all of their friends online and to… well… share stuff?

Good question – and one that doesn’t seem to be asked quite often enough, as we all rush towards being ‘socially compliant’ with our blogs and our wikis and our user generated content and our buddy/friends lists.

If you’re thinking of joining the bun rush (or your client has insisted that they must), I think the first and most important question to ask is from your potential users perspective – what’s in it for them? What’s their motivation to sign up, to find and make friends, to participate, and to come back, ever?

What’s the motivation of your employees (in an enterprise environment) to start or contribute to a blog or to add or edit content on a wiki?

The best framework that I’ve found so far for thinking about it has come via Tom Coates in his presentation ‘Greater Than The Sum of Its Parts‘ where he talks about personal motivation for users in social network environments

Tom quotes Peter Pollack’s ‘Economies of Online Cooperation’ and says that there are four key sources of personal motivation in online social networking, being:

  1. Anticipated Reciprocity
  2. Reputation
  3. ‘Sense of Efficacy’
  4. Identification with a group

Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it. People participate in these things because they think they’ll get back what they put in (and perhaps more), it will enhance their reputation (making them more likely to be the go to person for the cool projects because they’ve established themselves as an expert in that area, for example), they can get things done faster (like using Twitter as Tech Support), or – because that’s where their people hang.

Of course, I’d add into that the Ambient Intimacy effect which I think is more about being connected and less about identification.

At the end of the day though, we *know* that people participate in social networks firstly because they get some value from it personally. The network effect that comes from that is a very welcome byproduct, but it will only come about if the prerequisite of personal value is met.

So, as you, or your client, are considering your foray into the world of social networking – please start by thinking carefully about what value you’re delivering to your user. What is their motivation for using your site? What’s in it for them.

If you can honestly and realistically overcome this first hurdle, then you might have a chance of creating something truly valuable and successful.

Run, don’t walk! (Conference plugs and discounts)

Two things you need to know today.

dConstruct (Brighton, UK) tickets go on sale tomorrow (10 July). They sell out fast. You don’t want to miss out – especially this year with such a great line up on the theme of designing the user experience.

UX Week (Washington DC) also looks amazing. Tickets are on sale for a little longer yet, but if you want to get in at a discounted rate, your chances run out this week. And, for something extra special, if you use the promo code ‘UXLR’ you’ll get a 15% discount on registration. Don’t say I don’t do anything for you. :)

I’ll be at both of these events and would love to see you there. Sing out if you’re coming along!

links for 08 July 2007 – Methodology-fest

links for 06 July 2007 – Designing a ‘Quiet Structure’