I keep asking myself:  Why couldn’t I have discovered Instagram or Pinterest? 

With last week’s news of Facebook acquiring photosharing app Instagram for an eye-popping $1 billion, many social media experts are now turning their attention to the future of Pinterest, another hot, photo-centric social network.

Though I’m smarting that I didn’t create either Instagram or Pinterest, and wasn’t lucky enough to know Mark Zuckerberg & Co. in the early days, there’s hope for me and others wanting to embrace social to build brands and companies.  

Turns out, after several discussions with developers over the last few months, I learned that any publisher – and aren’t we all publishers these days? – can turn a website into a social network – and reap huge rewards.

I’m not talking about starting a social network from scratch – which was apparently the way to go a few years ago.  You could have used Ning or hired your own developers for that.  Ning is almost dead (it has a new owner), and developers are expensive.

Instead, a new category of developer has emerged right under everyone’s nose:  the social infrastructure provider. 

One of the most easily recognizable services of social infrastructure providers, such as Gigya and Janrain, is social login:  allowing you to offer ‘Sign in with Facebook’ or ‘Sign in with Twitter’ on your website.  I’ve written about social login in the past.

Beyond login, infrastructure can be extended to recommendations, gamification, and other plugins.  You can just imagine the rich data that results from such social plugins, feeds, and analytics.  This data can be used to fuel marketing strategies, advertising creative and ad serving, and content and product recommendations.  Feedback, opinions, and endorsements all drive sales, and what better to draw from than your users’ social graphs?

As such, social infrastructure can form part of a business’ key strategy for serving the right content to the right end-user at the right time, thereby driving a purchasing decision.

Even for B2B or professional services companies, the power of adding ‘Sign in with LinkedIn’ could do wonders to a database of more sophisticated buyers who control a much longer buying cycle.

I trust that this category will grow, as the need for expanded user info and social CRM will take center stage.  And let’s face it:  we need to thank Facebook, Twitter, and others for familiarizing users with social features – we just need a way to bring all of that data into our organizations, make it relevant, glean it for insights, and utilize it to advise on business decisions.

You may not discover a hot social startup, but you can have access to the data of one.