What a crazy year 2010 was for social. It seems, just like everything else involving technology, the "early-adoption-of-new-ideas-and-trying-them" curve, even by non-techies, is vertical to the point of being upside down. Non-computer people on are their computers as much as us longtime geeks because of Facebook and Twitter. The roller coaster of innovation that charged through its peaks and valleys at 1,000 MPH, continuously evolving our business intentions and plans before we even had a chance to finish putting them together, has been noisy and intense. What we thought made perfect, market-researched sense yesterday, is outdated within a quarter or less.
While I could sit around and talk about the noisy nostalgic past of social's yesteryear, I'll let that drop off this post like an old status update. I'm here instead to take a crack at letting you know what I think the future of social media looks like for online retail and search and it's integration into our lives, both business and personally.
The "Official" corporate website will take a backseat
I think that biggest switch you'll see is that official corporate websites and domains will matter far less. They will become the ranger stations of the internet, full of info, manned by a general information/customer service desk type person, team or entity, that are there to answer your questions. These shrinking static official websites will offer you some history, investor info, some photos and videos about the brand, and how to get ahold of them.
However, if a customer wants to see what a company is actually doing and/or selling everyday, they will go check out their Facebook pages and online communities to get the latest news, videos, photos, contests, events and more. Customers will be able to interact with real people from the company 24/7. As an every day consumer, they may even get to have real influence on product roadmap decisions for a company by providing meaningful feedback and engaging with the brand (which is already happening - see my post about Moxsie.com).
Now with the Like/Recommend buttons on practically every influential page on the internet, we have Facebook bringing everything from all over the web to our virtual doorstep…..which so far, seems to be working. Younger generations are starting to expect at least a limited virtual doorstep experience while they are online checking out a brand. It's evident in what I'm seeing when my two teenagers are online.
I believe 2011 will be an era of Generation Z scoffing and shrugging and throwing their arms in the air if they have to go outside of Facebook to do anything. We may soon all expect that if a business is not bringing itself 'to us', then why the hell should we care? If during the year of 2011, social commerce becomes seamlessly streamlined and integrated into the bubble of our Facebook profiles and favorite brand's fan pages, why should we leave Facebook to go to some other website with another online store? If we are ready to buy, why should we go somewhere else where we have to create yet another account, spend time searching for what we want using some crappy store catalog search implementation on a website, if we can instead have it contextually provided to us in a familiar environment. "Have it your way" becomes the new data mantra of the consumer. If I can stick with a familiar user experience that is embedded in my memory banks forever from daily repetition (Facebook), why shouldn't I expect my favorite companies to be on there, ready to do business with me on my terms? I believe that there won't be a need to really "surf the web" as we've put it, where we go out to other websites to buy and search for things. Instead it'll be fed to you through one website/feed in a way that you, the end-user, had voluntarily (and in most cases without realizing it) programmed it to be over the last few years.
You might laugh at the concept. You might wince at the thought. You might be wondering how many triple cappuccinos I downed before sitting down to write this. I have seen friends of my 8 year old, finally get an authorization from their parents to finally surf the web at their leisure (under some guidance of course) and when asked what they think the internet is, or is for, they ask me "oh you mean Facebook?" The first thing they want is a Facebook account because mom and dad and big brother and sister and grandma are on there all the time. I believe that once Facebook has a more robust general web search and commerce engine built into their system, you won't have to go anywhere else unless you want more of a boutique experience.
With a steadily increasing number of local retail shopping centers plagued with proverbial tumbleweeds rolling through their lonely parking lots, I've noticed that some retail store brands only rent out seasonal spaces (holiday) in certain shopping malls instead of trying to make a go of it year round. If they don't do the seasonal thing, they lose money hand over fist because the economy sucks. Why should companies pay for all the overhead when they can be exposed to more relevant customers, in global markets, year round, while doing business on a site like Facebook? I'm not saying the physical commercial storefront is dead yet, I'm just saying they're starting to make as much sense as the solar-powered flashlight.
The popularity contest of the corporate website fueled by SEO and media buys, will be coming to an end soon. Budgets will be redirected to innovative and comprehensive shopping experiences on a customized Facebook page with online store features and apps bolted onto it. I believe that the future success of most companies in any industry will be driven mostly by the presence and quality of it's online communities. These communities will be where every customer experience happens ranging from "Hi, this is our brand. Here's what we do." all the way to "Thank you for purchasing our product."