In a post more than a year ago, I discussed the commoditization of social networks.
"If we accept that social networks have become commoditized, and that social networking functionality will continue to be added to existing applications and websites, the question becomes: is there any real long-term business opportunity for standalone social networking startups?"
Fast forward to today and the commoditization of most types of Web 2.0 services is evident everywhere you look.
Many websites that pre-date Web 2.0 have added Web 2.0 components and this is exactly where these things belong 99% of the time - as "features" of a larger service.
Highlighting this trend is the recent launch of BusinessWeek's Business Exchange"
From BusinessWeek's launch press release:
"Users can create, find and track business topics that are relevant and meaningful to them, as well as access, share, save and add links to articles, white papers and videos from all available content on the Web. In addition, visitors can connect with industry leaders, BusinessWeek editors and writers, and other professionals around business issues that matter the most to them."
I decided to take BusinessWeek Business Exchange for a spin.
Business Exchange sports a simple design. Visitors are greeted with a straightforward page that provides a search form, a list of the most active topics, a list of active users and a "Register Now" call to action.
Topic pages are also simple - they provide lists of articles, posts and pages on the topic as submitted by Business Exchange users. Registered users can save and comment on articles, posts and pages of interest and can, of course, submit their own.
User profile pages provide lists of recent activity, topics and contacts.
From a design and information architecture standpoint, I think BusinessWeek has executed well. Business Exchange is clean, easy to navigate and is not overwhelming.
Unfortunately, I find it to be a bit underwhelming in terms of content because from a practical perspective, Business Exchange is little more than a "social" news aggregator and directory.
While it does a decent job of providing users with tools to submit, save and find news, there's nothing inherently compelling in the Business Exchange offering.
Most of the news shared is commoditized and available via the usual suspects. For instance, the three most active articles for "Lehman Brothers" at the time I first started trialing Business Exchange came from the NYTimes.com, BusinessWeek.com and Economist.com - all websites that are already frequented by many people who would have an interest in the demise of Lehman Brothers.
While there's some utility in being able to access articles about a specific topic in one place, Business Exchange is hardly the only news aggregator that makes this possible and in reality, there's often only so much unique information about many of the topics Business Exchange covers (how many ways do you need to rehash Lehman's failure, for instance, to get the point?).
All of this said, I do think BusinessWeek Business Exchange is a worthwhile initiative for BusinessWeek.
The reason? Business Exchange doesn't need to be as compelling as a standalone property.
There are no VCs requiring a massive exit. And if BusinessWeek can leverage Business Exchange to build loyalty amongst a small portion of its existing audience and generate additional advertising inventory that it can monetize via through its existing ad sales efforts, it will most likely come out a winner.
Had something like Business Exchange been launched as a standalone business, I wouldn't hesitate to question its viability.
In the final analysis, Business Exchange is little more than a value-added offering that will appeal to a subset of BusinessWeek's existing web audience. BusinessWeek doesn't need Business Exchange to grow into a multi-million dollar empire. And while I'm sure BusinessWeek has made an investment in it, I would be surprised if this investment was "material."
At the end of the day, Business Exchange and the Wall Street Journal's new subscriber-only social network demonstrate that there is a place for social networking and "Web 2.0" in the world - as features.
Standalone Web 2.0 "success stories" are few and far between and when the dust settles, I suspect there will be far more Business Exchanges than Facebooks, YouTubes and Diggs.
And that's the way it probably should be.