Following on from the introduction of digg-style music news in August and a full site relaunch in September, Virgin Radio this week introduced a VIP area to its site, enabling users to build an online profile detailing their favourite artists and introducing basic social networking functionality such as shout boxes and blogs.
In order to enter the VIP area you first need to sign up for a free Virgin Radio VIP account and confirm your email address. Once in, you're encouraged to add a welcome message and image and list some of your favourite artists in order to start building a picture of your musical tastes. This list then acts as a filter to the content on the rest of the Virgin Radio site, flagging up any music news, forum posts, blog posts or other content related to your chosen artists.
Adding artists to your profile is a smooth process with auto-suggestions appearing as you type, although it is only possible to add artists who appear in the Virgin Radio database and you must fill out a Contact Us form if you wish to have less mainstream artists added - arguably not an issue for the average Virgin Radio listener... ;-)
It is also possible to add friends to your profile (by username, real name, age range, location or by the artists they love) whose activities (e.g. submitting, commenting, rating) then become visible on your profile. There's an option to specify up to three favourite artists and five favourite friends who will then receive a greater weighting in your recommendations.
The addition of user blogs into the mix is a worthwhile enhancement and is particularly well executed. Whilst obviously not massively sophisticated in functionality, the ability to add artist tags to each post and the quick launch toolbar bookmark are options that some of the major blogging outfits are only just getting around to adding.
The VIP content is also well distributed throughout the rest of the Virgin Radio site. The Artist Dashboard appears on all artist profiles and enables you to add an artist to your favourites, blog about them or submit a related news story. Some pages also feature a tag cloud of the most popular artists which gives a nice snapshot of the audience's musical proclivities (or at least what they're prepared to admit to).
On the down side, navigating around the VIP area can be confusing at times with the naming conventions adding to a lack of clarity around whether specific bits of functionality will be found in your VIP Dashboard, your VIP Profile or your VIP Lounge.
Arguably the biggest shortcoming of the Virgin Radio VIP area as it currently operates is the lack of visibility on the whole community. Where sites like Flickr offer a three-tier view (Your Photos, Photos from your Contacts and Everyone's Photos), Virgin Radio only offer the first two. With the exception of the tag cloud, there is very little indication of how big the Virgin Radio VIP community is or what it is current doing.
Still, early days. Whilst inevitably not as sophisticated as dedicated music communities like Last.fm, the Virgin Radio VIP area is a significant step forward in creating online communities around real-world radio stations.