Upstart social networks set sights on federal niches

Debates continue about whether social networks generate workplace value, but a number of small, niche-focused social networks are betting that online conversations are here to stay.

Three years ago, posting profiles and friending colleagues on social networking sites were novelties for federal employees and contractors. Now it’s hard to imagine interacting online without those networks.

Although debates continue over whether this hubbub of activity generates real workplace value, a number of small, niche-focused social networks that target federal audiences have been betting that online conversations are here to stay.

Public-sector users choose Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn as their most popular social networks, according to researcher MarketConnections, and government-focused groups have formed on those sites. A more concentrated federal presence is found on a host of smaller feds-only social networks formed during the past two years that strive to be a base for collaboration and information sharing among government employees and contractors.

“Social networking was hyped a lot two years ago, and now everyone is doing it,” said Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop, the “Facebook for Feds,” which has grown to 35,000 members.

Two-year-old GovLoop is maturing rapidly as the largest federal employee-focused social network, while newcomer Disgover claims 10,000 members. For federal contractors, The Federal Contractor Network (TFCN.us) and Deltek’s govWin are competing with each other and possibly with other federal-focused sites, such as Steve O’Keeffe’s MeriTalk.

The sites are still evolving, and competition is tighter than ever as newcomers continue to enter the market. Federal employees have more choices on where to spend their social networking time online, and those choices are becoming more fractured as the niche sites emphasize their unique features and memberships. Here is a survey. (Editor's note: Federal Computer Week has partnered on editorial projects with GovLoop and Disgover.)

  • At GovLoop, the focus is on leadership, management and productivity, with hundreds of blogs, discussions, advice columns and a few unique applications such as a per-diem calculator. Most recently, GovLoop started sponsoring real-life events around the country. “The topics have evolved a lot,” Ressler said.

GovLoop was bought by contractor GovDelivery a year ago, and synergies are emerging. For example, GovDelivery used GovLoop to add value to a recent contract to help the Census Bureau sign up recipients for its notifications. Because many federal employees were already signing up for the census notifications on the Web, drawing on the GovLoop membership was a good fit, Ressler said.

  • Alex George founded TFCN in August 2008, and it has since grown to about 30,000 users, he said. The site is known for its large business directory, job boards, discussion groups and teaming opportunities among small and large federal contractors. “The job boards are very popular,” George said.

He is working closely with the developers of the Ning platform — used by both TFCN and GovLoop — to add more functionality and make portions of the site accessible only to premium subscribers.

Meanwhile, George said, competition is tightening. “We have to fight for eyeballs. Folks underestimate the amount of work it takes to get a sufficient base like this.”

  • Disgover is still in the prelaunch phase with about 10,000 users, said founder Larry Schlang. It was developed by a group of former government executives and contractors as a secure, free platform for sharing knowledge. It is being used by the Veterans Affairs Department; Arlington County, Va.; and academic institutions along with individuals.

Schlang said the site’s unique platform is its key strength. “We believe we have a number of technological advantages that are uniquely important to the government community,” he said. “We have a variety of privacy features that are critical to government people. We also have a number of tools [that] help users automatically get access to relevant information.”

  • GovWin was created in 2008, acquired by Deltek in January 2010 and now has 10,000 member companies and 17,000 members. It offers a number of blogs, forums and job listings, and its distinction is its matching technology to help large integrators locate smaller companies as subcontractor team members, said founder Jeff White.

“Social networks historically have been used for engagement and conversation,” White said. “Now we are leveraging the network to get business value.”

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