iVillage, USA Today Open Social Sites

iVillageFollowing closely on the heels of USAToday.com’s revamp as a social, community-oriented website, iVillage has opened up their own social networking component located at connect.ivillage.com.

Traditionally, around the lab, we’ve always been incredibly skeptical of any brand that wants to open up their own social networking site, for a variety of reasons, primarily that attracting a user base is incredibly difficult (plus, just from an experiential standpoint, it’s hard to come up with feature sets that are different enough from what currently exists and still be relevant to users). Personally, I think both of these ventures have legs, though.

From a purely theoretical standpoint, both sites have auspicious beginnings, particularly iVillage, which has already gathered an awfully loyal following of women 18 and older, and particularly women 35 and older. It seems like social networking may be a little less of a shoe-in for USA Today, which caters to a significantly older audience (average age of 45, according to Nielsen//NetRatings), but having seen some of the letters that newspapers get sent to them about their articles (The LA Times used to receive some hilarious ones), I think this could actually be a remarkably fun little venture for everyone involved.

Both sites have also seemed to address the two central needs that all social networking sites must cater to, namely ways to express individuality and ways to be recognized as parts of larger groups. For iVillage, they’re featuring both their most active users and their newest users on their front page, which is a nice feature. USA Today has an ongoing blog documenting the opinions being expressed by readers, featuring particularly apt snippits of what’s being written on each page, and, in general, offering commentary on the commentary. Which is remarkably meta, but I think it just might work.

I actually had a discussion with another major national newspaper about something very similar to what USA Today about four months ago. In general, like many major newspapers today, they were exceptionally concerned about the challenges that newspapers are facing from the online world, particularly with declining circulation numbers and decreased advertising income. One of the central ideas that came out of the meeting was that, with the rise of citizen journalism, major media outlets may still hold the grip on quality of news coverage, but they’re losing being the exclusive providers of news and opinions. As Chris Heuer over at the Social Media Club puts it, they need to “become the Town Hall, and stop thinking like the Town Crier.” Ultimately, newspapers need to begin capitalizing on the wealth of opinions being expressed instead of relying on the same old “you read what we write” mentality.

So, in general, this is a pretty fascinating move and I can’t wait to see how it turns out. According to Mashable, iVillage is viewing their new community features as “MySpace for Moms,” which is positioning itself right in the center of what’s already a burgeoning market (another example of this type of “mommy-oriented” social networking site is CafeMom). It’s pretty good move, though, given the average age of social networking users it increasing pretty quickly (Bebo, the number one social networking site in the U.K., has an increase of one year in the average age every couple months or so, I’ve heard).