Step Three: Profit?

By Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca

One of the recurring themes of social media talks is: "How can I make money off it?" Or, to put it another way: "Can anyone make money off it?"

It is a question that calls to mind the timeless South Park sketch with the underpants gnomes, whose three-step process to profit is now legendary: "Step One: collect underpants. Step Two: ? Step Three: profit."

In social media, a lot of time is spent thinking about Step Two, and whether its big companies like Facebook or MySpace, start-ups like twitter or smaller players offering niche services, it's still a challenge.

Twenty-nine-year-old former University of Waterloo student John Phillip Green remembers that challenge when he came out of school. He and his wife built a service called Nuvvo to link educators and people who wanted to learn particular skills or fields.

Teachers on the site had the option to offer services for free or they could charge, but very few users were willing to pay, he said.

The site received quite a bit of attention, he said, but couldn't overcome its main issue: "We didn't know how to make money," he said.

After working in Silicon Valley to hone their business acumen, they've come back with what has been a more successful model: a site called learnhub.com that provides educational material such as SAT questions to students in India, while providing a place for targetted ads for U.S. universities hoping to attract students from that country.

What's interesting about the model is how at a time when more educational endeavours are moving to more open, collaborative and social models, learnhub has created a business model around the old-school institutions and enrollment.

This is not an accident, he says, since even with alternatives, what many people want and need is credentials, and that is what the schools can give them. This is particularly the case during a recession, when many people go back to school.

"That's the thing about the education business," he says. "When things are good, it's good. And when things are bad, it's great."