Bootstrap Your Own Social Network with KickApps

What Web publisher wouldn’t want to see his stream of visitors coalesce into a real community—people who enjoy coming back to the site again and again, not just to consume the site’s content but to leave comments, interact with one another, and perhaps even contribute their own creations?

Unfortunately, the Field of Dreams scenario—if you build it, they will come—rarely applies to community-building on the Web. First of all, you actually have to build it—meaning, the tools to support online interaction and user-generated content—and that traditionally requires hiring a team of Web developers, giving them months to code up and test a platform, and handing over big wads of cash. Then you actually have to get visitors to use the tools, which they aren’t likely to do unless they see that other people are already using them, presenting a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma.

But a Boston-funded, New York-based startup called KickApps is fixing at least the first half of the problem. The company offers what it calls a “white-label social media platform”—plug-and-play software that allow website owners to add community features such as video and photo sharing, personal profiles, social networking, blogs, groups, and message boards virtually overnight. And starting today, with the release of the newest version of KickApps’ system, you don’t even have to understand Web development to customize and manage your own branded social-networking and media-sharing empire. Among other upgrades, the company has introduced WYSIWYG editing tools that publishers can use to create customized media-sharing portals by picking from pre-designed themes or creating their own.

“You can now come in and manipulate the look and feel of your social-networking pages, the behaviors of the drop-down menus, and everything else without any previous knowledge of HTML or CSS,” says Alex Blum, KickApps’ CEO. “It opens it up to beginners, visual designers, or people within the marketing, editorial, or sales departments.” (I guess that even that includes us knucklehead reporters.)

KickApps was founded in 2004 by Eric Alterman, a serial software and telecom entrepreneur who sold his previous company, MeshNetworks, to Motorola in 2005 for $250 million. The company has collected $18 million in venture capital so far, counting an $11 million Series B round last August that involved Boston’s Spark Capital and Prism VentureWorks as well as Softbank Capital. Blum says he joined KickApps in January 2007 after several years running the audience division at AOL, trying figure out how to engage users more deeply to compete with other portals such as Yahoo.

“Through trial and error we discovered that social media was the key to the strategy—social networking, user-generated content, viral syndication through widgets, and the general migration to rich media and video-based experiences,” Blum says. “Eric had this vision for a company called KickApps that essentially had all the ingredients we were looking for.” Alas, the vision didn’t come along soon enough to help AOL, now an orphan Time-Warner subsidiary that continues to decline in usership and relevance and is the subject of never-ending spinoff rumors. But Blum liked KickApps so much that he joined the board, then became CEO.

The KickApps-powered Guiness Worlds Record community siteThe company has created social media portals for customers as varied as Vibe Magazine, Procter & Gamble, the ABC Family cable network, Guinness World Records, and the DIY cable network. But before the latest release, customizing these sites for individual clients required a lot of handholding from developers inside KickApps. Now KickApps users have more of their own DIY tools at hand, including PowerPoint-like software for building custom “widgets” that community members can then transplate to other locations across the Web, driving viral traffic back to the main site. (The DIY Network, for example, created a widget that contains a scrolling list of home-improvement videos submitted by users; members can embed this widget in their blogs or MySpace profiles.)

In the best case, adding media-sharing and social-networking features to a consumer-facing website turns traditional one-to-many publishing or programming into a collaboration. That way, “You aren’t spending money creating all these pages—your audience is creating content for you, and you are able to monetize it,” to use Blum’s words. But as noted above, getting people to contribute isn’t as simple as turning on a few pieces of software. Blum says he’s aware of that—and that KickApps platform includes tools and tips for boosting audience involvement.

“We recognize that it takes more than just implementing our technology to drive a successful social network,” Blum says. “There are elements of programming and marketing required to nurture and grow your audience to the point where they take over on their own. But we’ve baked that intelligence into the product, starting with the KickApps affiliate center, which is a dashboard that presents you with real-time information about what’s going on in your social network and tips about what we think you need to do.”

And not every website is a natural nucleus for a media-sharing network. (Somehow, I can’t see Xconomy’s readers submitting videos of their latest board meeting with the investors or blueprints from their latest patents.) “Certain sites are pure utilities—you come to do a thing and then you’re gone,” Blum acknowledges. “But if you’ve got a site where you have like-minded people showing up and you can facilitate sharing and communication, then it makes sense.” May the mini-MySpaces multiply.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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