Social networks are everywhere these days. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get invited to join another social site to connect with the same people in virtually the same ways. Most are doomed to fail because they are either too late to market or don’t offer anything of greater value than sites people are already attached to. So naturally I was skeptical when stand-up comedian Aaron Karo announced he was starting a social network for his fans. I got the chance to interview him about his site, how he markets it, and what he hopes to gain by starting dialogues with, and between, his fan base. It turns out it wasn’t just another social media site after all.
About Aaron Karo
For the unfamiliar, Aaron Karo is a stand-up comedian with a loyal following in the college and recently-graduated crowd. As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, he began compiling random thoughts about his first days in college in late-night emails to friends and family. These “Ruminations” quickly gained popularity and his email list grew to 50,000+ readers around the world. 11 years later, the email newsletter still jokes about college antics and job-related humor tailored to the cubicle-dwelling, entry-level crowd. Karo, as he’s known by his fans, left his Wall Street job to pursue stand-up full time and uses his email newsletter to build awareness and excitement for his upcoming shows all over the country.
Ruminations.com is his latest project. It’s a Digg-style social media site where users can post short “Ruminations”, or random observations about daily life. Other users can award “Gourmet” points for ruminations they find particularly funny or accurate. Most take on a Seinfeld-esque “What’s the deal with that?” tone but surprisingly many are pure comedic genius. Ruminations with the most Gourmet points rise to the first page and can even be featured in the email blast if deemed worthy. Users can become “fans” of other users if they like their stuff.
Where did you get the idea to start a social network for wannabe comedians?
Well the beauty of the site is that it’s expressly not for wannabe comedians. It’s for anyone who’s ever had a funny thought or observation and wanted to share it with other people and see what they think about it. My previous site was very one-way – I published my column but there was little interaction. I could have augmented it a little bit and added commenting or whatever. But then I was like, fuck it, lets just take it to the extreme and let my fans post their own material and see what happens.
What are your goals for Ruminations.com? Are they personal, professional, or both?
The best part of my job as a writer and comedian is interacting with my fans, so on a personal level, this has given me an opportunity to do more of something I already loved. On a professional level, obviously the site helps build and expand my brand. It can’t hurt when you run a web site that is populated pretty much across the board by people in their twenties and thirties. It is a pretty lucrative demographic.
How is the site doing so far?
It has exceeded all my expectations. Within six weeks I had to bring someone on to help me moderate everything because it was getting out of control.
How have you leveraged other social networking sites to build the Ruminations.com audience?
I’m on Myspace, and my Facebook account has actually been capped at 5,000 friends, which sucks. So I’ve used those, along with YouTube, to spread the Ruminations love.
What have you found to be the most effective tactic for getting people to the site? To contribute?
People don’t seem to need much incentive to contribute. They are submitting like crazy. As far as getting people to the site, it’s just a question of plain old marketing. I need to get the URL in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and they will come.
What does it take to stand out on Ruminations.com? Which kinds of content get the best response?
Ruminations that are pithy, insightful, well-written, and unique. It also doesn’t hurt if I award it a gourmet point myself. Even though my points are worth the same as everyone else, I’ve found the ones I vote for tend to do well.
Most people are not as funny as they think they are. Do you think your site is better at rewarding comedic genius or dispensing comedic justice?
Probably the former because, unlike Digg, you can’t “bury” or “un-gourmet” a submission, you can only give it a point. So the worst that can happen is you only get the one point that everyone gets automatically. I want Ruminations.com to be a happy place, so I didn’t think the ability to take away points was appropriate.
What kinds of patterns do you see in the connections people are making on the site?
At times it seems like every single person on the site is sitting in a cubicle hating their job. People get really excited when they find out they’re not the only one.
Why did you decide to build a custom site instead of using an open source solution like Pligg (a Digg clone)?
My developers recommended it. There’s a lot more functionality and customization available to me this way.
What plans do you have for the future of the site?
I’m gonna implement some banner ads in the coming weeks and we’re constantly adding new features. Next up will be a breakdown of the most gourmet users by points earned.
Why can’t I get my ruminations on the first page? Am I not funny?
You answered your own question. The gourmet points don’t lie! (Editor’s Note: Damnit!)
Lessons for Social Media Marketers
Judging by the initial success of Ruminations.com, it becomes apparent that having an established fan base (or customer base) is a huge advantage and can make or break your attempts at building a social networking site. Nobody wants to be the first to join a new social network, so it helps when you can introduce a lot of people at once to avoid the “echo chamber” effect that occurs when early adopters join a new network but there’s nobody to connect with. See my predictions about the failure of Yahoo! Mash for a prime example.
It also helps to have established social media presence elsewhere to promote your content and build awareness. In Karo’s case, the site was initially announced in the bi-weekly email with follow-up exposure on his Facebook profile (maxed out at 5,000 friends), his Facebook group (1,200+ members), and his Facebook fan page (2,000+ fans). He also created a YouTube channel (170+ subscribers) and a MySpace profile (5,400+ friends).
Let others carry the message for you. Word of mouth (online and offline) is the most effective form of marketing. Make it easy for people to share content from your site on other social networking sites, email, etc. Even if it’s simple RSS feeds and social media chicklets, give people a way to spread the love. More advanced interactions like mobile web access and SMS are not essential but open up literally millions more portals to your content.
And of course, compelling CONTENT! I can’t stress this enough. Whether it’s user-generated or corporate-backed, it has to give people a reason to want to get involved and keep coming back.
I am looking forward to keeping an eye on the growth of Ruminations.com, both as an active user and a social media marketer. If you can relate to Aaron’s sense of humor, you may enjoy his books: Ruminations on College Life and Ruminations on Twentysomething Life.
[Disclosure: I provided some SEO advice to Aaron before and after the launch of Ruminations.com. You can find my ruminations and profile here.]