iTunes adThere are many things digital marketers can learn about customer
engagement from Apple. How to launch and sustain your own social network
is not one of them. Two months after the launch of Ping, Apple’s music
social network is failing to resonate with users. (It’s dead in the water, if
you ask Fast Company).

What can smaller brands take away from the experience?

Reconsider building your own platform

With the exception of marketers with deep, deep pockets, most companies have abandoned the idea of building their own branded communities. Maintaining a fully-functional social media platform is expensive, and getting users to sign up for one more social tool is more difficult than it seems.

White-label platforms like Ning and KickApps do include tools for growing and sustaining strong communities, but a better option would be to maintain forums, reviews and other social features on an existing Web site.

Supplement those features with tools like Facebook and Twitter, and partner with existing, organic communities in the company’s niche. (An all natural baby food brand, for example, could sponsor content on a forum for “green moms,” or recruit local mommy-bloggers to guest-blog on their corporate site).

Don’t make your branded social network hard to join

If a company is still committed to launching a branded social network, then at least make the sign-up process dead simple. Apple says iTunes Ping attracted more than one million users in the first 48 hours of launch. There haven’t been any new milestones posted since then. (If there were, the company would have announced them). 

With 160 million iTunes users overall, a few million users is barely a blip. The number should be much larger, but Ping is struggling to gain users because the sign-up process is cumbersome. (Let’s not even discuss how buggy and slow iTunes becomes with each new version).

There’s also no real artist community for users to rally around. Apple’s strict control of Ping’s content – artists can’t even post links to their websites in their profiles, for example – has kept the number of artists signed up for the service to just 2,000. Compare that to MySpace with well over eight million artists.

Make sure you connect with other social networks

Finally, make sure that a branded social network is able to plug right into the target market’s existing networks. Platforms like Meebo let users aggregate all of their social media contacts into a single dashboard. If a friend doesn’t use GChat, for example, Meebo can find them if they’re on AIM or Facebook. There are dozens of other tools like this.

Apple’s #pingfail is really driven by the fact that users can’t connect with Facebook, Meebo, or any other social networking platform. A walled garden can keep bad content out, but it also keeps social interactions in and invisible from non-members.

Facebook’s member base has continued to surge because non-members can see member interactions and content all across the Web. Apple – and any other company seeking to launch a branded community – must take a page from Facebook’s open graph playbook if they’re hoping for success.