Awareness Networks - Social Networking The Social Media industry seems to get just a little bit bigger every hour and it's amazing how many different vendors can come on the scene and offer products and solutions that can help us design and build communities of one sort or another. As an enterprise though, you need to be sure you are working with the right solution provider. Someone who is not only selling you a service, but helping you truly understand why and how to implement it. This is where you see Awareness -- an on-demand social media platform for Web 2.0 communities provider -- emerge as a front-runner. They have the right technology platform and what appears to be a wealth of knowledge and understanding to implement your community(s) the right way. As interested as we are in social media and content management, we were very open to the opportunity to speak with Awareness about their SaaS solution. Expecting it to be a good review of their product and how it works, we were pleasantly surprised to have a genuinely good conversation about social media in the enterprise in general. A discussion that made this writer more open to the possibilities of enterprise social networks.

A Little History on Awareness

David Carter, CTO of Awareness took us through a brief history of Awareness. We'll say brief because he outlines a deeper one in his blog that will give you even more information on the Canadian roots that grew this company. The gist however is that David worked for over 11 years with Microsoft on Intranets and Site Server (the original SharePoint for those of you old enough to remember). During that time he met and worked with Robin Hopper, who owned his own company dealing with Fax on Demand Software. The two apparently hit it off and had many good discussions on building communities, something both of them saw a need for -- even back in the early 90's when the term "user generated content" didn't exist. Robin eventually went on to create a Content Management company called IUpload and David a company called WebPartz. Through mysterious forces and the blessing of email, the two joined up together, consolidating their companies into one -- IUpload.

The Emergence of Awareness

Through their work with IUpload and closely watching and working with the new Internet that was emerging around them -- that of user-generated content becoming a priority -- they recognized that it was a different beast and needed to be managed differently from traditional content management. So they started building tools around UGC. RSS feeds, blogging applications that contained versioning, things like that. They started wondering what it takes to make an application enterprise caliber. The answer, they found, was security. In 2005 Awareness demoed their first Social Networking platform. A couple of years later, in 2007, they moved their headquarters to Boston from Toronto, Canada, but kept their development shop up North. With the help of venture capitalists NorthBridge and Greylock -- VC funders for the likes of Digg, Facebook and LinkedIn -- they have been able to grow their team and develop a platform that works both inside and outside the firewall. It wasn't until 2007 that they renamed their company Awareness. 7.jpg
Awareness Services

The Awareness Web 2.0 Community Platform

The Awareness Web 2.0 Community Platform is an on demand social media solution designed for both internal and external communities. Awareness believes in the value of the community and that the struggle is getting people to use these tools as opposed to our tried and true email applications. When they went for VC funding they were told to pick a space -- internal or external. But they saw such commonality across features that they chose to ignore these suggestions and built a multi-environment solution. AW_Communities.jpg
Awareness Communities

The platform includes all the basic social media tools for User Generated Content such as blogs, wikis, rss, discussions, tags, video, comments, ratings, podcasts and more. Add to that social networking with profiles, status, activity feeds, people, awareness and all those goodies and you have the makings of a true Web 2.0 community. Other functionality added in their latest release -- Summer 08 -- includes: * Ad hoc groups that can be private or open * Friends Lists * Improved reporting

Accessing the Community

You can access the community in a number of ways: * Branded community hosted with Awareness * Mashups * Awareness widgets and APIs to add to third party applications * Mobile apps and email * Facebook * SharePoint aw_connections.jpg
Awareness Connections

They are just starting to publish their APIs for third-party application use and have designed and developed Facebook applications that enable users to connect to Awareness-powered communities.

What Makes the Platform Unique

When you sit back and look at how the platform has been designed, you start to really understand Awareness's differentiator. In this platform there are two primary things: a piece of content (i.e. a blog post) and a profile. Now that piece of content can be become just about any other type of content -- a wiki entry or a discussion, but it's still the same piece of content and still retains all the attributes applied to it. aw_differentiator.jpg
Awareness's Differentiator

What does this mean exactly? It means that you don't have different content repositories for each type of content that is created. There is one repository and you choose how you want that content presented to the user. Start by creating it as a blog entry and decide to later make it also a wiki entry so that people can start contributing to it. This is where you start to see the content management roots take hold. And it's an approach CMS vendors have for years sold to customers -- "write once, use many times". Also unique is the fact that all content is tied to a profile and context is applied as a result. So you know who created that content, who changed it and so on. To go along with that all, tagging, categories, permissions and search attributes are also tied to the piece of content. This approach is something Bill Ives picked up on last year when he profiled Awareness in one of his blog entries. aw_socialMedia.jpg
Awareness Social Media

What this approach allows is rich reporting that captures everything that is done in the exact way it's done. It enables you to see who spends the most time actively contributing to the community and how -- which in turn enables you to "reward" those who add great value to the community. In addition to reporting and metrics, there are a lot of Admin tools to manage the community from setting permissions and security to assigning workflow rules, to content organization and moderation.

Working with Enterprise IT

One thing David said they do well is work closely with enterprise IT groups to get them on board with their SaaS solution. Awareness understands their needs -- identity integration, authentication, security, backup and all that good IT stuff. As a result, they are able to secure the approval of these groups early on which helps sell their solution that much quicker. Not only do they win the hearts of IT divisions, they also win the hearts of lawyers who are always concerned about control in social networking situations. David says they teach people to use the services by first showing them where the brakes are. So they don't just go into an organization and flash all the cool things you can do -- they show you how to do it slowly and carefully.

Awareness and SharePoint Integration

One of their biggest achievements appears to be their latest integration with SharePoint (both WSS and MOSS). Awareness complements SharePoint. Like so many other social media solution providers they see the value in integrating with this application that is so entrenched in organizations today. So they developed webparts to draw in content from intranets to administration and to provide SharePoint with the social features -- user-generated content and social networking -- that it is lacking.

Social Media in the Enterprise - The True Value

David Carter comes across as a good natured and honest guy who knows the strengths in their company. He says the Awareness's strength is in building the platform. Yes, they do a lot of business process and expert guidance, but when they feel they aren't providing the best value, they do recommend outside resources such as BeeLine Labs and a number of advertising, PR and interactive marketing agencies to help the organization plan the best implementation of their platform. From talking to David though, the company does understand the value of these communities and how to truly make them work for an enterprise. They believe it needs to be fun and that you need to promote/pat the backs of people who contribute. They don't believe you should dive in without a clear plan or necessarily turn on a full fledged community when you've never had one before. In some cases -- as with their client Discovery's Promise Map -- start small with what you have and slowly build from there. The company had designed this map, Awareness showed them how to put a small social media application behind it to make it that much better and useful. discovery_promisemap.jpg
Discovery's Promise Map

Other external sites that Awareness works with include globaltravelblog.com, goredforwomen.org, Boston.com and Hersheys. In terms of internal social media solutions, probably one of their most prominent is McDonalds Corporate US. But also add in corporations like Exxon, Marriott and JetBlue. It's interesting to note that David had some good feedback on the recent ReadWriteWeb post that discussed the Wall Street Journal article Why Most Online Communities Fail. His own blog post on the discussion included asking yourself these very important questions when planning a community: * Will it be relevant to the people who will be using it? * Who will manage the community? * Do you have a right to be a "community" for your customers David's blog isn't the only one on Awareness's own community that provides good information on their solution and social media in general. Awareness is listed as one of the 25 Enterprise Social Media Platforms/Companies To Be Aware Of in a blog on Social Media Today. We are inclined to agree that this is a company and a solution that enterprises need to evaluate if they want to truly engage their customers and employees.