Apple’s stab at social media is little more than a sales tool

Apple’s Ping is apparently the latest, greatest entrant to the social media sphere. It’s not just any old service, says Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, but a “social network all about music”. “It’s Facebook meets Twitter meets iTunes,” enthused Jobs at Ping’s launch last week.

Well, excuse me, Mr Jobs. Apple may be a fantastically clever company with many beautiful products, but Ping is not a social network. It is a standard sales tool dressed up in the most fashionable clothing of our time – social media.

Let me explain. If you’re not “Pinging” yet, it is a service set inside Apple’s iTunes network and allows music fans to find friends with similar interests on the network (like Facebook) and “follow” music artists (like Twitter). It aims to create conversations and comments around artists, bands and music events.

That all sounds lovely, but to me, Ping is fake social media. The service is superficially social, but not truly so. It is housed within Apple’s iTunes platform, which means it isn’t really open for people to communicate with each other as they choose. It is controlled within another programme. You can’t simply log onto the internet and access Ping; you have to invest in Apple’s software or hardware to get involved.

Compare Ping to Facebook. Anyone with an internet connection can log on to Facebook and see thousands of other programmes integrated with it. You want your Twitter status to come up in your Facebook news feed? No problem. Meanwhile, Ping doesn’t integrate itself well with other programmes. It’s removed from the rest of the social set.

This isn’t all Ping’s fault. When I logged on to the service on its launch day, you could find your Facebook friends through Facebook’s Connect service. But that function has now been removed due to what Apple calls “onerous terms” demanded by Facebook to allow the integration.

While this may be fixed, it means right now Ping is playing alone. Ping wants you to find friends and follow music artists but you have to laboriously search for friends on Ping by name or email to track them down. Yawn.

The next issue is usability. The reason Apple’s products have been so successful in the past is that they have made technology or software pleasurable to use. Yet Ping is not terribly intuitive. It misunderstands its audience. Music lovers tend to be passionate about the acts and tunes they enjoy. Yet Ping keeps suggesting I follow acts that I don’t actually like. If I haven’t bought any Katy Perry music in the past, why keep suggesting her to me?

Ping is not terribly intuitive. It misunderstands its audience. Music lovers tend to be passionate about the acts and tunes they enjoy. Yet Ping keeps suggesting I follow acts that I don’t actually like. If I haven’t bought any Katy Perry music in the past, why keep suggesting her to me?

Ping continues to offer me music that appears on the iTunes store but not necessarily in my interests. Many bands I like aren’t on the iTunes store, so it simply doesn’t bother suggesting these, even if their music pops up in my personal iTunes library. There is no relation between the music I’m listening to and what Ping suggests for me. This just seems plain clumsy.

And this leads to what may be Ping’s biggest failing. It feels like it is just trying to flog me music rather than genuinely offer me a social experience. If I choose to “like” a song on the service, there is a big button offering me the chance to buy it. For all Facebook’s well publicised issues with its privacy settings, it keeps a light touch on its marketing and sales machine in order to keep its users happy and quickly rectifies any mistakes. Without users, a social network is an entirely useless object.

Of course, some of Ping’s issues will probably be solved relatively shortly. So far, bands cannot really create their own “pages” such as on MySpace, which might be its biggest rival, but this is set to be developed in the not too distant future. And it clearly has Apple’s rivals thinking about their own social offering – Sony’s Qriocity (pronounced curiosity) network is now coming to devices in Europe after a launch in the US earlier this year.

And with 160 million registered iTunes users, if even a few of these use Ping, it will have an enormous following. If it can convert some of these to spending more money with Apple due to the presence of Ping, the company will probably count the new service as a success.

But Steve Jobs should be very careful even if Ping does start to lead to more sales. People don’t like to feel manipulated by social media into commercial arrangements. They use social media because it suits them and their own needs, not corporate ones. And Apple – while often brilliant – has had its fair share of failures. Do you remember the Apple MessagePad? Or the Pippin? What about tuning into Macintosh TV? Hmm.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Ping is not really a social network in the truest sense but a fairly obvious sales machine. That’s fine as an addition for Apple customers buying from iTunes, making that service more useful or intuitive for customers. But let’s not call it social media any more. If Apple really wants to be pals with us, it needs to start acting like a friend, rather than a salesman.

Ruth Mortimer is associate editor of Marketing Week

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