On Friday I was invited to Indigo Head Office to see a demo of their new Community Network. It was a small informal group of us that were shown, in some depth, their upcoming social networking solution that soft-launches today (Monday Sept 24, 2007).
When attending a demo like this it’s hard not to be simultaneously impressed by the hard work that has gone into conceptualization, design and development (Lord knows, it’s not fast or easy to build something like this) and cynical because of the plethora of feature-rich social networking/community sites already in the marketplace. In fairness, Indigo has done an excellent job building what is, to my eye, a hybrid of Facebook‘s and Bookcrossing‘s functionality with a little blogging capability thrown in for good measure.
What they’ve done right:
- Inviting Their Own Community In – Indigo has opened the door to the community to their staff first. A week before their soft-launch, they invited all their home office staff to start using the community – building their profiles, bookshelves, friends lists and starting groups. Over 50% of their staff jumped on board. This is huge. Not only are they recognizing and engaging their existing community, it means that unlike most launches of sites driven by user-generated content this one will "not be a ghost-town" (to quote Stuart MacDonald) when it goes live to the public. Even better than that, the people who are starting to populate the community, build their Top 10 Lists and start discussion groups are pre-qualified, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and motivated book lovers. That makes it much more enticing (and easy) for those of us joining in later to engage with the community and tap into the existing enthusiasm and expertise.
- Badging, Authority and Transparency – Indigo Staff, Trusted Advisors (aka experts paid by Indigo for their book recommendations), Authors and Artists all have the ability to self-identify and attach a badge to their profile… a double-edged sword of reputation and transparency.
- Friends AND Favourites – like any social networking community, you can have friends, but Indigo has refined this a little. Knowing that many people will want to "friend" their favourite artists, authors and personalities, Indigo has introduced the concept of "favourites" (much like bookmarking). Favouriting allows you to track your favourite personalities without having to share your intimate reading details (or vice versa). For now, favourites can only be people, but in future this will likely extend to series and possibly publishers.
- Groups & Book Clubs – People have been asking Indigo to provide a way to organise and manage book clubs for years. Even their own stores have been looking for a way to make this easier and with the Groups they are finally putting this online. (There are some outstanding questions about group searchability – so don’t expect people to be able to find your Jane Austen Fan Club if you don’t invite them explicitly. At this stage, that requires your friends to have a profile and to be your "friend".)
- Quick Comments – much like bulk loading photos into Flickr, when you load a book into your bookshelf you have the opportunity to comment on it. A lot less pressure than writing a full review, but still you are getting to share your knowledge and Indigo is getting information which can build towards helping other people decide whether this is a book for them.
- No Purchase Necessary – Unlike their major primary competitor – Amazon.ca – joining and writing a review does not require purchase.
- Pen Name – like Bookcrossing – it’s possible to set yourself up with a public pen name, keeping your real name in the profile private.
- Blogging – yes, another blogging platform. This one comes with integrated polling, tagging, photos and YouTube. Of course you can also link to any product available on the Indigo site.
What they still need to work on: (come on… you knew I’d include this)
- Syndication – Leesa Barnes brought up an excellent point when she asked about syndicating comments on her upcoming book (or any title) onto her own webpage. And while that is a fairly unique case, being able to "own" your own comments, reviews, and discussions and syndicate that content easily to your own blog would be a good thing. Portability and ownership = free advertising
- Affiliation – as a publisher myself, I know that Indigo hasn’t been super-predictable with its affiliate program(s) over the years. But now that there is the ability to start Book Clubs, Movie Groups and Product Discussions within the Indigo community there is a fantastic opportunity for people/companies/publishers to leverage Indigo’s hard work to provide a discussion forum for their own fans/groups. The problem is, why would I invite all my readers off my own site and into Indigo’s Community if I’m not going to get a kick-back?
- Integration – with blogs, facebook and other social network tools. It has been identified as an area they are looking into, but it’s not yet available.
Right now the community is open and collecting content. The information that will pass through to the retail side of the Indigo site in a book’s listing are the "reviews" (not comments but the more formal reviews), the aggregated ratings, who’s listing the book as a Top 10, and who’s blogging about the title. But I can see fairly soon, that the quick comments will start popping up with long-tail titles that aren’t having much discussion around them.
What’s yet to be seen is how, at this stage in social networking/social media’s development, Indigo will (if they can) attract consumers to participate in yet another social networking tool.