Global Social Networking; How Tips from Joe Chen Could Apply to Digital Health


I recently attended a very interesting panel discussion with Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal and Joe Chen, founder and CEO of the social networking giant Renren (NYSE: RENN). Renren is often referred to as “The Facebook of China” and has a market cap of $2.4 billion in US currency. The first social media network, of this magnitude, to go public worldwide. Chen is one of the most influential Internet pioneers in China, and rarely makes an appearance in the US.

img_0748Jeff Yang, WSJ, talks with Joe Chen, CEO Renren, about the future of social media

It turns out he is very approachable, wonderful to talk with, and brimming over with lessons for business success.

  • Tip number one comes from Jerry Yang and Warren Buffet, who Chen says are some of his biggest influences. Their advice? Focus and master areas of expertise.

Chen’s words were, ‘your circle of competence is vital in order to raise and make money.’ What he meant is that you should limit yourself wisely. Hone in on only a few areas of expertise, learn them well, become a master. Then, cultivate a network of support, with members whose circles of competence differ from yours. Tap into these people as resources, and allow them to help build your success.  He tells an interesting story of how in the early days Renren was burning through the investment cash and would soon run out of money.  Out of necessity, he had to cut staff levels by 50% and focus the business on one area.  It worked, as the company grew to $168M.  If you can focus on one area, when you have lots of options, you will do well.

  • Tip number two is, in social media you need to enable users to do what they want in the shortest amount of time possible.

He explained that the four areas of social media are Communication, Search, Entertainment and E-Commerce. Each of these has a been profoundly simplified and transformed by social media, which has created rapid adoption.

Some successful examples of companies with defined categories are Groupon—E-Commerce, Facebook—Communication, and Twitter—Entertainment. The gaming world was the first to leverage social media, with online games like Zenga.

  • Tip number three is about going mobile. In order to be accessible and visible on a small phone screen, online products must be built differently. Simply put, people will search less on a phone than a computer because it’s hard to type on the phone.

So, mobile applications need to be very simple. This is common human behavior, and can be explained through behavioral economics. The mobile format requires a different form factor. One important way to do this is to use key features to make something a better mobile tool and test, improve, measure, improve and repeat.

A complete video of this interview is available via the MITCNC web site.

So, here are the big questions on my mind: How can the tips above be applied to health and wellness? Can social media revolutionize health care, enable community care of individuals, and thus promote a greater general wellness? 

In the current situation, we see health-centric digital devices working wonders for a niche crowd. These are people who are a combination of fitness fanatics and dedicated digital users. However, the use of digital devices for the promotion of health may not be expanding out into the general population unless required by a physician. What is the best way to promote the expansion of this trend? Converting health-conscious programs to a mobile platform offers an enormous opportunity to help wellness and improve health. This could happen by implementing a method that is similar to the Wii Fit—a method in which people don’t even know they are working out or tracking their diet or walking more because they are having fun using their phones.  I know that there are apps out there that are working to help keep people healthy and include RunKeeper, Skimble, Zeo, and Nike+ GPS.  Yet, is this enough?

If developers and business leaders adopt the above-mentioned principles, and apply them to making wellness information simple, fun, and easily applicable to the mobile platform, then digital health could become as ubiquitous as taking photos with a cell phone.

Now, I am off for a hike with the dogs and will turn on my mobile app to count my steps.