Why Brands Should Build Their Own Social Communities

When it comes to social media, lead generation is one of the trickiest yet most important metrics. Truth be told, it's not that easy for companies to turn fans and followers into dollars. And limited data supplied by the big social networks often makes it even harder to show the lead generation value of social media. But Twitter and Facebook aren't the only games in town. 

Meet SocialEngine, white label software that helps businesses build their own branded, interest-driven social networks, control their message and turn participants into potential customers. The service has been around for a few years with some success, but the product has now been relaunched as SocialEngine Cloud, retooled for bigger clients. 

Size Matters

Tech giants Electronic Arts and Apple use SocialEngine to build themed online communities for educators and gamers. NASA used the service to build a site for a middle-school science challenge; MasterCard, for an internal-communication platform; Shell for an entrepreneur-focused business network with more than 200,000 members.

Each community is very different, but all are designed to help the sponsoring company build a specific audience using curational features similar to Reddit and Pinterest

Most of SocialEngine's customers are still affinity groups, those that build sites for people interested in topics like pets and parenting, but co-founder and chief executive Alex Benzer wants to attract more big-company customers. And he claimed the ability of his service to give businesses firmer control over the experience gives it a leg up on other social network creation sites, like Ning, which did not respond to requests for comment. 

"If you can create a place for discussion about whatever it is you sell, you own that discussion," explained Benzer, a veteran of the Boulder, Colo., TechStars accelerator program.  

Owning The Conversation

Benzer said his service, which costs $54 per month, allows brands to steer the conversation, and ultimately collect email addresses, both of which they are unable to do on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Facebook doesn't allow the creation of profile questions, and Twitter subscribers must filter through a great deal of prying eyes and outside stimuli - what can only be called noise.

"Facebook wants to own the relationship between you and your customer," Benzer said. "SocialEngine gives you and your brand its own community. It's a much better way to get the info you need to qualify leads."

Lead Generation

SocialEngine does this by allowing businesses to control the direction and flow of information and content, which Benzer believes increases the likelihood of turning a brands' fans into customers. Plus, he said, companies don't need technical experience to build a SocialEngine community, but experts have lots of customization options. "People with some tech skills can create really unique websites, way beyond what's currently possible with services like Ning, since we give you HTML-level access," Benzer said. 

So far, about 350 sites have been built with the new software. SocialEngine pulled in $1.4 million in revenue in 2011, with more than 9,000 clients.