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A Web 2.0 platform you may have missed

Find out from Freewebs' president why advertisers need to know about this next step on the engagement-marketing continuum.

If you look solely at the usage metrics of interactive media -- audience size and composition, time spent online, most popular online activities, online frequency -- you might conclude that the medium has matured. But the truth is that you can "critical mass" and "inflection point" until you are blue in the face; but with the business models on how to monetize all that online activity still so nascent and evolving, it's clear that interactive media is still in a pre-verbal stage.

Most of the major developments within the medium fall within a continuum. Looking backwards, many seem faddish, but still reveal some traces of today's standards. The animated .GIF ad banner, for example, planted the seed that would grow into rich media, by way of HTML banners, flash animation and video, with increasing capacity for interaction.

Then along came widgets. Judging from the buzz around them, it is easy to overlook that they, too, are part of a continuum -- at the very early end of engagement marketing. What is at the far end of the engagement-marketing continuum -- even when the far end might occur -- is as unknowable right now as Facebook's market cap, although the pundits are just as likely to guess at it.

But what is more interesting about widget marketing is not what it may one day evolve into, but what its popularity says about personal publishing. It is following a continuum of its own, which began with Geocities and The Globe and Tripod, progressed into blogs and vlogs and podcasts, before veering off into social networks; "veering off" because profiles aren't quite the same thing as publishing, in the same way that texting isn't the same thing as talking, or trailers aren't the same thing as films.

Social networks are, at their core, collections of connected profiles. As a means of expression, profiles are a truncated value proposition. As social tools, they certainly facilitate community. But for the psychologically sound, they're not a substitute for it. By nature they are templated, because templating allows some commonality, and also relieves users of the burden of creativity in order to participate. And relieving burdens of participation is the cost of doing business in the scale game.

But not everyone wants to be relieved of the burden of creativity. The immense popularity of widgets is a testament to this creative urge; a means of self-expression, identity and individuality within the confines of a templated environment.

Enter social publishing networks, the next point on the personal publishing continuum. Social publishing networks are publishing tools with network features (in contrast to social networks, which are networks with some publishing features). They are popular with people who create before they connect; the same personality types who were early to adopt personal homepages and blogs at their outset. And even then, there has been some effort to evolve earlier publishing platforms into social publishing networks.

Blogs, of course, have their blogrolls, pointing to complementary content and/or like-minded bloggers. And if you remember Geocities you might also recall Webrings: circles of connected sites with complementary content linked serially, betraying decidedly analog thinking within a new digital platform.

But the social publishing networks of today and the near future are step-changes from what has come before. Open, untemplated platforms coupled with a teeming widgetsphere allow for unbridled creativity, and the social features have also progressed, due in no small part to all the social envelope-pushing occurring at Facebook, MySpace and the dozens of networks nipping at their heels.

As a result, they will grow in popularity because they fill a need in the market better than anything that has come before. They won't rival the bigger social networks in size; their lack of templates will see to that. But the participants they do draw in will have deeper connections to these networks owing to the effort they put into the content they are creating there, and also because -- unlike profiles -- they actually contain content.

The ease of building profiles is a double-edged sword, capable of slashing barriers to entry and barriers to exit with equal facility. The time people put into creating their social publishing networks raises switching costs, engendering long-term loyalty.

Why should advertisers take note of social publishing networks any more than they did of Second Life or podcasts or Twitter after being assured that they, too, were the next new thing? Social publishing networks have some advertiser-friendly features built right in:

Their user base is loyal and deeply invested in the platform. Finding a rich audience here now means finding the same richness next campaign, and not having to fear that consumer fickleness will prompt platform defection.

By nature, participants in social publishing networks are both creative and social, traits increasingly sought after by advertisers who are honing their word-of-mouth marketing skills and pursuing collaborators for consumer-generated campaigns.

The widget marketing skills advertisers are fervently ramping up will apply here as well.

At their heart, they are content. Content still fits more neatly into a media plan than demographics, psychographics, behavior and social connectedness.

Social publishing networks may turn out to represent a major industry development, marking the point at which both advertisers and consumers become equally connected to the same media. But like all of the other narratives within our industry's development, that story is to be continuumed.

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