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One social network that promises not to 'monetize' you

Despite pressure to show uses ads and make hay from their personal data, CaringBridge refuses.

"Monetization": for social networks like Twitter and Facebook, it's the most essential business issue they face. How do you turn all those eyeballs into money in your pocket -- and do it without driving people away?

One major social networking site has declared that it has no intention to ever monetize its audience. CaringBridge lets those facing serious health issues set up pages to network with the people who care about them. It's a nonprofit -- but it's potentially big money: half a million users a day who might follow a link to buy cards or flowers, or whose data could be valuable. CEO Sona Mehring says the pressure to monetize even sick people and their well-wishers is very real.

"We get calls every day from various people who want to use the CaringBridge social network for advertising, for the data that we have," she says. "We do not sell data, and we protect the environment that really protects the families that use Caring Bridge. So it is freeing to be able to say 'no' because it doesn't fit into our model."

But what if there's real money to made -- if they're missing an opportunity to raise money that could be put back toward the non-profit mission? And CaringBridge certainly does monetize, in a way: When I go to the Caring Bridge site to get an update on a friend, it's pretty hard for me miss the "Donate to CaringBridge" button. How is that different? I put these questions to Mehring in this episode.

Mehring also thinks that even though CaringBridge's nonprofit situation is a little different from, say, Facebook, the 15-year experience of CaringBridge has something to teach the for-profit social networking world. "I think this is a very important model to study. I do think especially in the area of health care and the explosion of services and options that are available, the idea of a charitable model is usually one that is overlooked. And if you put the people as your profit, there is a very strong financial model through charitable giving that we have proven out."

We also talk with a CaringBridge user, Jenny Counsell. In 2009, at age 29, doctors discovered a brain aneuysm: a weak artery near her brain that could rupture and cause a stroke. She wasn't about to go Tweeting or Facebooking her way through her brain surgery. Knowing Caringbridge was not trying to monetize her interactions made it a better choice.

"Within the week that I was in the hospital, I had over 1000 visits (to my CaringBridge site), so for someone to be continually be checking up on me and having to see ads or having log in and make an account, it took away from the fact that all they wanted to do was find out was OK, could come and visit," Counsell says. "Ads and all these other things can take away from the fact that it's so emotional, I guess is how I'd describe it, for both parties."

About the author

Jeff Horwich is the interim host of Marketplace Morning Report and a sometime-Marketplace reporter.

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