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I guess you can teach an old dog some new media tricks.
Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iTunes is about to become the Cupertino giant's springboard to social networking, as its new Ping feature transforms Apple's digital marketplace into a social discovery website.
Hearing Steve Jobs discuss Ping yesterday makes it seem like a slam-dunk.
Artists will be able to post status updates and interact with fans on their iTunes artist pages. Since Apple is the country's largest music retailer, it would seem nuts for any musical artist not to play along.
Viral juices also flow for the fans, who can post bio profiles and connect with either old Facebook buddies or new friends with similar musical tastes.
This is where things begin heating up for Apple -- in terms of monetization -- but it's also where it's missing the boat.
More hooks than a Black Eyed Peas or 3Oh!3 song, but no bait
As Ping connections grow, iTunes users will be able to see what their friends are streaming, buying, and even reviewing. Music charts will be customized to feature what like-minded souls are listening to through iTunes. They'll know what concerts their friends are going to and be able to purchase tickets accordingly. Users can preview 30-second samples of songs being reviewed or purchased and buy them if they like what they hear.
This sounds like a winning move all the way around. Apple will sell more music, and that's good news for not just Apple. Hungry major labels will benefit from an uptick in high-margin digital music purchases. Folks will spend more time on iTunes, at the expense of Pandora and probably even Facebook. Concert attendance should get a boost by going social, and that's great news for Live Nation (NYSE: LYV ) .
However, the one thing that's missing in all of this is the financial incentive to participate.
Sure, no one is paid to post on Facebook or tweet on Twitter. But it doesn't make virtual door prizes any less attractive.
Whenever I buy movie tickets online, I get prodded to contribute a movie review. Why? I get asked to submit dining critiques after an OpenTable (Nasdaq: OPEN ) seating. Check, please! What's in it for me? I've been shopping on Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) for nearly 15 years, but I have only bothered to post a couple of product reviews in that time. What's the point? I'm all for helping my fellow online users, but I can better utilize that time -- and my thoughts -- for a chance to get paid for my thoughts elsewhere.
Before you brand me a self-centered punk, ask yourself why I should help out Apple, OpenTable, and Amazon.com before helping out myself? They're not charities. They're using free content provided by ego-stroking souls -- many who fail to realize the value of their own words -- to pad their own bottom lines.
It doesn't have to be that way.
See, as a member of Amazon's affiliate marketing program, it makes more sense to publish my review elsewhere -- linking to the product through a commission-generating hyperlink. Why kick in with a movie or restaurant review when I can just blog about it through Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Blogger, having Google populate the entry with relevant ads from its contextual marketing AdSense program?
Isn't that what's missing from Ping? Participants will have their opinions resting right next to preview and buy buttons. Why shouldn't Apple let them in on a piece of the action. It doesn't have to be much. We know Apple kicks the majority of iTunes revenue back to the content creators. However, I think folks would be posting reviews, actively listening, and promoting their Ping pages pretty heavily if there were a financial reward. Heck, Apple can even pay them in iTunes dollars. Keep it in the family, you know.
Social music without the earplugs
"I want Sirius XM to make the most of its audience by launching dynamic and sticky online destinations," I wrote two years ago, also hoping for Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI ) to roll out an App Store program that finally launched last summer. "Shouldn't each of its genre-specific music channels be the catalyst for a social network? Aren't there more outlets to market its original content?"
Sirius XM didn't take my free advice, but it seems as if Apple is positioning itself well to master the space. It's a pity, because this would have been a real game changer if Sirius XM had monetized its Web presence accordingly.
Apple can't be too cocky here. One of Jobs' rallying points is that there are 160 million active iTunes users in 23 different countries. Even the slimmest of fractions latching on to Ping will make it a contender.
However, I keep thinking back to Yahoo!. Three years ago, then-executive Sue Decker referred to Yahoo!'s 250 million Yahoo! Mail accounts as a "dormant social network" worth tapping into. It made perfect sense at the time, given the popularity and constant contact of Yahoo!'s market-leading free email platform. Well, Yahoo! has gone through more than a few stabs at social networking -- and largely missed.
Apple can't just assume that Lady Gaga will be enough to get the network effect rolling, though I'll admit it's a good start. Sooner or later, Apple may have to resort to financial incentives that make sense -- before a smarter, hungrier upstart beats it to the final verse.
Will Ping be a hit for Apple? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.