Bill Kling was thinking about social networks since long before MySpace became all the online rage. In fact, he was doing it before the first Internet bubble crashed—some five years before phrases like "user-generated content" and "Web 2.0" would dominate the news and Silicon Valley cocktail party chatter.
Kling is president of American Public Media Group, one of the largest producers and distributors of public radio programming. From early on, he's been stunned at how many listeners take the time to write letters to the show. "We discovered there is someone—usually many people—who know more about any subject we broadcast than we do," he says. What's more, they seemed to be yearning for a way to interact with the stations, not just passively listen to the radio.
In April, 2000, he huddled with some Silicon Valley venture capitalists to figure out how to bring all those smart listeners together in an online network—though he didn't have a name for it at the time. Then the Nasdaq (NDAQ) crashed, and the idea shifted to the back burner—where it simmered.
Adult Society Online
But the idea stuck with Kling. And as he got to know listeners better, he became more convinced they often had more in common with each other than many of the people they knew in disparate and typically suburban pockets around the U.S. For one, they often fit the typical public radio demographic: over 35, highly educated, and keenly interested in the political and cultural world around them.
Today, he finally has his social network, Gather.com. Look at the site's front page and you'll see middle-America feel-good topics such as "craft ideas for the weekend," but also weightier topics like state-by-state discussions about whether the Democrats can win back Congress. Then there are chat rooms that range from spirituality to food and wine.
Based in Boston and started by former e-mail marketing entrepreneur Tom Gerace, Gather.com is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary, with American Public Media Group as a key investor and supporter. Gerace boasts about the site's new blue-chip advertisers like Volvo and Starbucks (SBUX) and rising traffic. Rising maybe, but not exactly taking the Web by storm. According to comScore, it had just 77,000 unique visitors as of September, 2006. Compare that with the 173 million for MySpace and you get a sense of the conundrum facing Gather: Do grownups really want a place to hang online?
Appealing to Life's Next Phase
The 35-and-over demographic may be increasingly Web savvy, but between careers, kids, spouses, and aging parents, most don't have time to lurk online the way teens and young adults do. When they're online, they'd rather focus on something specific, like careers, kids, or even knitting or dogs. As they get older, they spend more time on sites focused on such matters as health and aging (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/25/06, "Boomers: A Web-Marketing Bonanza").
Consider the largest site focused on this demographic, LinkedIn. It doesn't have chat rooms or message boards; personal profiles don't even include photos. It's focused on helping people network and get further in their careers. "The key thing is plugging into something they care about," says LinkedIn Chief Executive Reid Hoffman. "People log into Facebook six times a day because the thing they care most about is hooking up with people. For someone older, that ain't their thing. You have to appeal to something in the next phase of life."
Similarly, blogging site Six Apart's new offering for thirty- and fortysomethings is called Vox. It has a specific use for time-pressed adults, giving them a place to post goings-on in their lives and family photos in one spot, complete with privacy protections (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/25/06, "Six Apart's Booming Blogosphere"). Think of the annual Christmas letter, only interactive and able to be updated on the fly. Six Apart's Executive Vice-President Andrew Anker points out that Vox was in invite-only test mode from June 1 until it opened to the general public on Oct. 24, and already it has 80,000 members—more than Gather has amassed in a year.
Another challenge: Gather has an unusual—and expensive—way of luring members. It buys pricey TV ads to grab their attention, and then pays users for contributing content to the site. That's likely a big reason the company has raised near $10 million in funding—a lot for a consumer Web site these days and blasphemy in some pockets of the new, interactive Web, where the winners boast minuscule cash-burn rates. "TV is a mistake," says Hoffman, who is also an adviser or investor in sites including Digg.com and Facebook. "My basic rule is nothing works on the Internet if it doesn't have some natural distribution."
Still, Gerace and Kling are sticking to their guns, betting advertisers will pay up for substance. "Name for me one other social-networking site that's having an intelligent debate about health care or Iraq or about the environment," Gerace says.
Indeed, Starbucks picked Gather as its first foray into social-networking marketing. "The site is a medium to connect people and ideas," says Stephanie Bittner, director of marketing for Starbucks. "Starbucks is a place where people go to connect so the concept is very similar." She'd rather pay for a few real conversations than myriad "shout-outs" to friends.
Authoring a New Way
The nontraditional approach certainly resonates with some of Gather's most rabid users, such as Beryl Singleton Bissell. A resident of a tiny town on the north shore of Lake Superior, Singleton Bissell, 67, just published a book she's been working on for some 20 years, titled The Scent of God. Her publishers suggested she join an online community to promote it. Thinking MySpace, she shuddered. "Oh, Lord, I'm not into online communities," she recalls. But she says Gather is far different. The company talked her through setting up a profile, and when she nervously flew to Boston for one of her first readings, the Gather crew showed up with a crowd of users, many of whom she'd been chatting with for months.
For Singleton Bissell, the site is a literary tool as much as anything. She writes essays and regularly reads what about 50 of her closest Gather friends write about a couple of times a week. Her old blog on another site only got a few comments if she was lucky. On Gather, her posts average 30 or 40 comments each. It's helped her promote her book, and she recently won a short fiction contest that Amazon.com sponsored on the site. "It's helped me to think faster and gain more confidence," she says.
Also, she views it as time with friends. At the end of October, she's going on a Gather-sponsored cruise celebrating the site's one-year anniversary. "It's like having a mentor and a family all at the same time," she says.
That may not be as sexy as racking up thousands of friends who leave notes saying they're ROTF LOL, but for Kling, at least, that alone is proof he's onto something.