Although I think it’s a bold move and a step in the right direction, I sense that the impact of USA TODAY incorporating social features into its service will have less of an impact than many think.
On the surface it looks like they simply hacked in a white label solution from Pluck. This is rarely a great way to jump start a real community. Also, the front page is now a collection of links and many people are commenting on the features page that it makes it hard for them to find real news quickly (many are threatening to jump ship to make another news site their home page).
Launching social features into a large readership
All the social media sites that are successful in their own right grew up with their communities. Digg and Reddit launched silently and built up their community one person at a time. This allowed them to gradually improve their service as more and more users came on board and provided feedback. The current product is as much a creation of its users as much as the companies that operate the service.
UT’s relaunch is more similar to the reinvention of Netscape’s in that they’re essentially targeting a large existing audience.
How much control are you willing to give the community?
Avatars and the ability to keep track of your activities or finding more personalized news is definitely a nice feature. However, how much more control are they willing to give to their community? What are the incentives to join the community for people not already a part of the current readership?
If joining the community gave me the power to influence what hits the front page of USA TODAY and how prominently it features in whatever small way, that would be a very powerful incentive to me. Another would be how good the personalization is.
If the only reason to incorporate more social features is to lock in the current USA TODAY readership as an army of loyal commenters then that might have some limited success in building loyalty but might not drive new growth. It could even backfire and alienate the readership if not thought through properly.
How fast the pace of change?
Unleashing a community on the readership is only the first step. How much feedback are they willing to take and incorporate? Like all large media properties even if the main people in charge of the project are in tune with the community, it might not be easy to push those changes. This relaunch like any web service is only the first step and the goal is still not in sight. What the company thinks a community wants and what the community wants are two different things. Factor in the wisdom that consumers don’t really know exactly want they want and you have a very tricky change process at hand.
Just look at the pages upon pages of comments(a lot of it negative) on the features announcement and you’ll get an idea of the challenges ahead.
I’m sure USA TODAY wont be the last and someone will eventually succeed in really providing a seamless experience. However, if done wrong, it can only alienate the existing readership and cause more harm than good. You need to have the commitment to community and speed for change.
USATODAY relaunched its website yesterday with a parade of new features that will add a significant social layer to the site that wasn’t there before. The website is no longer a simple hose spouting news at readers. It has become a full on social network, integrating user generated content in intelligent and interesting ways.