Thursday, November 8, 2007

Yahoo Punts Long in the Social Media Wars with Kickstart

You have to hand it to Yahoo: there is a lot of pressure on them from pundits and analysts to come up with something that would put them in the game with major social networking portals. But while still incubating their Mash social media platform they've come up with a product that says in effect that they know that they have a long ways to go. As such the introduction of Kickstart by Yahoo needs to be looked at through kinder, gentler eyes than might otherwise be the case. Instead of rushing a "we're everything to everyone" portal to market that would be sure to be met with disappointment Yahoo has gone to war with the platform that they've got and has chosen specific battlegrounds as a starting point.

The specific focus of Kickstart is young adults making the transition from college into professional lives. This is a gap that may be more theoretical than real given the strength of services such as LinkedIn, Facebook and in covering alumni relationships, but by focusing specifically on young adults making a transition Yahoo may have an opportunity to catch a toehold of acceptance with these people just at they're considering how to move out of campus mode into corporate mode. Sounds good on the surface, but this may be a case where traditional marketing analysis will leave Yahoo several yards short of their goal. Many of today's college-age generation see a strong blend between personal lives and careers that carries over well into their twenties - the odyssey years, some have termed them. The "prosumer" concept is something very comfortable to this generation, so sharing photos and videos is not necessarily something that conflicts in their minds with professionalism. The division between the Mash project and Kickstart seems like it's aiming at a gap that their audience may not perceive.

At the same time, though, there may be a few young adults who look at their Facebook profiles and say to themselves, oops, I did it again. The danger in mixing consumer and professional outlooks is that it takes a fair amount of maturity to show that you know how to balance these lives effectively. So Kickstart may be named as such to suggest the notion of "fresh start" to those young adults who didn't make the best use of social media to put their most adult foot forward. But at the end of the day it's far more likely that a service like Facebook can help these young adults to maintain meaningful relationships that can include their professional personnae than a service like Kickstart can loosen up and make networking seem to be a little more fun. From this perspective the dead-serious LinkedIn network seems like a more likely target for Kickstart than Facebook, creating a new generation of highly professional networkers that can make the most of people in their networks with great skillsets.

At the end of the day it's not Yahoo that's broken in designing products such as Kickstart but an information industry as a whole that focuses on databases more than the audiences that they serve. Social media is far less about what is stored on a server and far more about what happens in the browsers and mobile phones that connect peers to one another. Social media can yield highly valuable data and demographics for licensing and advertising support but as demonstrated in Facebook's new socially contextual ad and marketing program the premium value in social media is in the contexts that databases can generate on the fly based on interests and activities. Facebook may yet be trumped by a maturing brand out of a Yahoo that can manage some of the details of one's life with more professional panache but by separating the content experience from the networking experience Yahoo seems to have missed out on developing a platform that will create the most rich environment for both advertisers and content licensors.

Hopefully Kickstart can get some quick yardage for Yahoo to consider its next move in social media but in the meantime the rest of the teams are moving to a more sophisticated playing field altogether. Whatever way you slice it Kickstart is trying to define a niche product, in effect ceding the ground already seized by other social networks. With the introduction of Google's OpenSocial the Yahoo crew is becoming that much more isolated from the greater social media environment, becoming increasingly an island for copyrighted content and traditional brands that are powerful in their own right but missing out on many of the contexts in which they can find their greatest value. There's money in that model, but not necessarily money that has a future.
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