Friday, April 30, 2004

The Goddess of Social Networking

She Might Bless You a Business Model

She is the Goddess of Social Networking. If she blesses you with the right connection, she can change your life forever. She is worshipped by the millions who seek her out. Devotees construct websites for her as if they were temples.

She sustains a $6.5 billion industry that grows annually. What’s more -- she’s been doing so for thousands of years old – long before the Internet and the term “social networking” came into vogue.

She is every Indian’s aunt, affectionately and reverentially called Aunty-jee (“jee” is a suffix to denote respect, as in Gandhi-jee). And she single-handedly drives the very Indian industry of marriage-broking called matrimonials.

“You must meet that lovely girl,” I can hear Aunty-jee saying. “She’s the daughter of an army officer. The whole family has a professional background. She’s gotten a BA from Delhi University. And her mother is a gem of a person.”

Whether it’s a “girl” or a “boy” you’re looking for, Aunty-jee is the person you need. She knows everyone and everything. She keeps a running mental database of family lineage and current activities. No one is beyond a degree or two of separation away. Her business is your business – even when you don’t want it to be.

Just because she’s called “aunty-jee” doesn’t necessarily mean she’s your relative. She’s a family acquaintance, a guest at a party, a friend of a friend – a social networker. Her brand has such social capital that community websites are named simply,

She’ll introduce herself with or without an invite. “Hello dear! Whose son are you? What’s your last name? What do you do? What does your father do?” You find yourself busy answering these questions before you can even think of asking her whom she is.

Aunty-jee sizes you up in her mind as you answer. Indian last names are like postcodes. They usually reveal your religion, caste (if applicable), and region of lineage. By the time you’re done answering, Aunty-jee has already run through the combinations and permutations that will make you “A Suitable Boy” for the many young and single women on her mental database.

The computations usually yield actionable items. “You should come to Renu’s party on Friday night. Sonia (Prospective Partner) will be there. Tell Renu I sent you. I’ll be there – but just in case, I’ll call Renu to make sure she introduces you to Sonia and her family.”

Auntie-jee is the social network node that knows the value of a connection. Before you know it, you’re married to a Sonia.

So what does this mean for the Friendster, LinkedIn, Orkut and Spoke’s of this world? In a few words -- she can teach them how to make money.

It’s at the point of the marriage event that the money kicks in. Indians spend about almost $4.5 billion a year on wedding-related gold jewellery alone. And another $2 billion is spent on catering, clothing, resorts and venues.

For social networking to be fully monetized, the nodes in the social network need a convergence event. These events provide a focal point where new networks are created and existing ones utilised. That’s why Auntie-jee needs a wedding. Her monetisation is in the form of gifts, party invites and a cache of social capital.

So, here’s the prediction. While some money will be made by social networking companies by subscriptions, online transactions and licensing of software – the real big money will be made by the vertical integration of online networking and offline networking.

The sum will be greater when there is a merger of social networking companies and conference and events organisers. That’s where the merchandise, memberships, personnel and company equity will be ultimately bought and sold.

The global conference industry totalled about $102 billion last year, according to Meeting Professionals International. That’s a pretty lucrative market for the online social networks to target.