Munster Rugby is arguably the most successful club/provincial rugby brand in the northern hemisphere. You know a rugby brand is successful when you have a huge portion of followers from an opposing club or province. It’s the Man United of rugby!
Munster Rugby clearly identified the need to harness new media and to try and bring the massive following under the one roof. Have they succeeded? Not yet. Their own website used to host forums which were horrifically run, as are all IRFU forums. They finally gave up the ghost and sought to replace it with a modern social network.
ClubW, based in Cork, come to the rescue! It’s clearly an ongoing engagement, and anything in social networking requires time, but the first reaction when one visits MyMunster.com has to have an underbelly of “meh!”.
I’m writing this review wearing a number of hats, which makes it harder. I, of course, strive to be objective. MyMunster.com is clearly aimed at Munster Rugby supporters (check), and users of social networking sites (check). I’ve spent over 8 years authoring collaborative software which has taken a massive swing to the social networking side. That doesn’t make me an expert, by any means, but it does help me identify strong and weak areas.
The site offers the basic feature of any social networking site; private messaging, public messaging, discussion forums, and areas to share your media. I.e. everything one would expect from a social networking site. We’ll look at those features in a bit more detail later. One twist on social networking that the boys in ClubW bring to the mix is monetisation, and they do that very cleverly!
My biggest gripe would have to be that there is no easy way to consume the information being shared. There are no ways to filter data to suit you. There are no categories of discussion threads, no shared albums, no tagging of content, and when it comes to the news page, it’s all or nothing. The site is lacking in functionality to make it easy for its members to contribute as well as to gain from the site.
To get any value from the site, you must first register, as is pretty much standard these days. I’d expect alternative login methods (e.g. OpenID, Facebook Connect, etc.) on a bigger site, but I’m sure these will come as the site grows. However, I’m still waiting on a confirmation email. This is a necessity for a number of reasons including my own archives (so I know what email address I used), and my own security (so I can report anyone trying to register as me, without my authorisation). ClubW have stuck one gem in the registration, and that’s to encourage users to upload an avatar there and then. Often social networks are devoid of avatars, and this can look poor, but MyMunster have placed appropriate weighting on the value of avatars. You can still skip the step, if you’re not that way inclined, which is, in my opinion, the best way to handle avatars.
There is a standard discussion forum available, as you’d expect. It’s a threaded forum, so people can start a topic, or reply to an existing topic. Standard stuff. One big failing of MyMunster.com is to categorise these discussions. It’s a social network based around Munster Rugby, so you’d imagine most discussion will be based on that. However, if you’re to encourage user participation (the measurement of success of any social network), you need to cater for other discussions. MyMunster does this, but lumps all discussions in together. The result is that it’s virtually impossible for a member to focus only on topics, or categories, of discussion. They have to crawl the entire page (and subsequent pages if they are bothered, which research shows they are not!) for a discussion that suits them. MunsterFans.com, the biggest competition to MyMunster, and indeed most discussion forum sites, does do this. Possible categories for MyMunster could include a minimal “Munster Rugby”, “Ireland Rugby”, “General Sport” and “Banter”, and expand over time as patterns of discussion emerges.
ClubW have themselves emphasised that this was an important feature, and they’ve revamped MyMunster accordingly. There are three types of messaging available, and all easily accessed from the Messaging page. You can message everyone, in a Twitter-esque form, you can message individuals in a public way, and, finally, you can send private messages to individuals. Given the recognition of the strength of messaging, I’d expect to see further UI tweaks here to make it easier (AJAX username lookup, layout of speech bubbles to put more emphasis on the message rather than its meta data, etc.). It looks like some people are using it in a Twitter kind of way (including the “I’m going for lunch” style of updates), in which case there’s an argument for an auto-refresh of those pages.
- Media Sharing.
This area, by the site’s own admission, is lacking. They have 2 separate areas for photos and video, although the latter isn’t functional yet on the site. I’m not convinced of the need to have 2 completely separate areas (Flicker, Facebook, and many other media sharing sites don’t differentiate). For now, at least, you can upload photographs and organise them in to albums. The photos are public, and can be seen by other members of MyMunster. What is absent, is the ability to tag photos, which makes it easier to search, and to display multi-member albums like “Heineken Cup Final 2008”. Right now albums are all separated. This space could be vastly improved with the addition of tags. It could also be improved by allowing import (or even just display) of albums/photos from Flickr, pix.ie, Facebook, etc. Similarly, for video, once the feature is implemented.
- News Aggregations.
Again, nothing new here, but it’s handy to have news specific to the community on display. Again, organisation of the data here is lacking. All the various RSS feeds are dumped in to one big page of data. Information overload. There needs to be a way to filter out Welsh national team injuries from Munster domestic fixtures. I’m not arguing that the RSS feeds should be there, just that they need to be better categorised so that I can manage my information better. I shouldn’t have to read 50 odd headlines (including scrolling) if I’m only interested in the 10 ish Munster-specific ones.
The MyMunster blog seems to be regularly updated with a nice mix of news & opinion on Munster Rugby, with site news & help. I’ve added it to my RSS reader anyway.
This is probably MyMunster’s only unique feature that hasn’t been done to death on other social networking sites. The lads in ClubW have clearly got a grip on the commercial aspect of social networking. I’m sure they’ve experienced this feature as a deal-breaker when negotiating sales. They haven’t just gone for sticking Google Ads on the site and hope that covers hosting and development costs. The system is a credit points based system. It’s a macro currency, as it were. You can top up your credits by purchasing with a credit card, and you get credits when you join to help you get started. You also get credits when you participate (for example I got 5 credits for uploading a photo). So active members are rewarded without the need to splash any cash; a huge incentive. You get to spend your credits on entering competitions (like free tickets, etc.). Plenty of potential here, and easily MyMunster.com’s stand out unique feature.
The ClubW lads obviously have a good head start in that they have a functional social networking site with basic features, and have the backing of a huge commercial entity (worth many, many MyMunster credits in advertising!). My constructive criticism can be best summarised as follows:
- Categorise data. Make it easier for your members to digest the information other members share. Some will be interested in what everyone says, most will not. Most will have a limited amount of time to digest information from the site. Use categories in the discussion forums. Categorise the RSS feeds “Domestic, Province, National, Other Rugby”. Yes, it might take more work to manually parse the RSS feeds, but promote some active members of the community to monitor/categorise the feeds and give ’em credits!
- UI tweaks. A very personal thing for the finer detail, but there are areas that could do with enhancements that have long been acknowledged as requirements on other sites, rather than personal tweaks. Things like auto-refreshing the live updates messaging page, using a Adobe Flash-based file uploaded (to show progress, handle timeouts, support multiple uploads, support zip file uploads, etc.). There are areas of the site that are in need of a usability review. I won’t dwell on the point, just to note that it’s in need of some effort.
- Data Sharing. Right now it’s not too easy to share data between members. Yes, there is messaging, but that is limited. I’d suggest the support of groups “The crew of the Munster Red Renault 19 Ferry Trip to Cardiff ’06”, or at least add multiple recipient support (so I can message Dave, Joe and Tom, and then can easily reply to all). For data/video sharing, there really is need for more than just uploading to individual albums. I’d suggest adding tagging support would be the easiest way to create shared group albums, e.g. “#cardiff08”. It would also make a nice tag cloud feature as a good starting point to offer casual browsers. Tagging support would fit nicely in with the public messaging as well.
- Data Privacy. One cause for concern when I uploaded a picture was that I wasn’t sure what rights, if any, I was giving up. Google, Facebook, etc., have all been in high-profile media criticisms over what happens to user content uploaded. You should have a clear policy on this. I had a quick, and I emphasise quick, glance over the Terms and Privacy pages, but couldn’t see anything obvious. If you’re not claiming the right to royalty-free use of my content, then brag about that, rather than say nothing at all.
- Leverage other social media.
Encourage users of other established networks to share their content in to yours, or indeed to sign in to yours without the necessity for registration. There may be value in registration, but there are ways to make this easier for members of other networks (e.g. OpenID or Facebook Connect), which you should leverage. Similarly, leverage the established methods of sharing the data between those networks. “Import album from Flickr” or “Create Flickr-based album” along side “Create a new photo album” and similar options. Indeed, offer an export to Facebook/Flickr from your site, so that you are the originator of the data; an added incentive for a member to use your site. Twitter is an obvious area for integration as well. Basically, there are other sites that do messaging, discussion, media sharing and that do them better than you have done, however harsh that may seem. My suggestion is to tap in to that.
MyMunster tries to be the jack of all trades, master of none. If a corporation is looking to implement their own social network, with monetisation built right in, then ClubW can definitely deliver. However, to build a social network and make it grow, then MyMunster is lacking in too many areas to make it easy for this to happen. They don’t harness the power of external resources (APIs, other social networks, etc.), meaning it’s a very isolated network. Or, in other words, a very expensive network to build. This has been offset by monetisation, but it’s unlikely that’ll be enough, long term.
MyMunster are on a winner with the monetisation, and have the very valuable backing of a huge brand. However, the ability to grow a social network requires more work from the boys at ClubW in functionality. ClubW and MyMunster; off to a good start, but more needed.