Targeted social communication comes of age

With Facebook's first earnings call post IPO the digitally connected business world came of age, with hype to be replaced by alignment with the financial world's demand for demonstrated effectiveness
Written by Oliver Marks on

The bloom is definitely off the 'Social Media' rose, with the financial markets failing to see beyond the profit model world they live in today, and the decor of the globally borderless first generation digital meeting places looking worse for wear after the free spirit party years. I've taken a few pops at Facebook and Twitter hype here in the past, but let's not underestimate the level of change we are now going through.

Even though pretty well anyone who wants to join the Facebook free global social club has now done so, Wall Street is unimpressed by commercial plans to monetize, and disturbed by a perceived lack of strategic clarity. The financial markets are owned by quarterly returns, and the perception of those returns is primarily formed by retrospective proof of what has worked in the past rather than new, unproven business models. That past is dominated by search and traditional digital display advertising models, industries that had a difficult time coming of age post dot com boom.

Add to this cold reality the missteps Facebook has made - the cynical IPO, the algorithms that prioritize whose posts appear (or more to the point don't) in your recently changed new look Newsfeed/Timeline, the crude data mining of your web browsing and privacy settings 'updates' most are now aware of - and we have definitely entered a new phase.

Just like the only social physical location in a town miles from anywhere else, Facebook and its web of connections is both the lowest common denominator option and the social system of record for our current digital era. You have to go where the people are if you want to socialize. Historically that has meant enduring listening to music you don't like and knowing lots of boring people in your small town bar as you network to meet new, interesting people, and today it can mean gritting your teeth and navigating through lots of digital ephemera on Facebook to find value in your online relationships.

People will tolerate the sketchy bartender, lousy food and decor so long as they succeed socially at the hick town bar, but never underestimate the power of a shiny new location opening and last year's hot place becoming a has been, particularly when there is no price of admission. 
However, as Bill Gates and various other lesser knowns said during the dot com boom "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten".
As I wrote on ZDNet back in 2009

In 1994 America Online trailed Compuserve and Prodigy, a third subscription option in how you hooked your modem up to the internet to go cyber surfing. What propelled AOL to global dominance by the end of that decade was their proprietary 'rainman' platform, which enabled partners to build out their anchor stores in the massive online shopping and lifestyle mall AOL became. Time Warner ultimately bought them with Ted Turner saying AOL was better than sex, and with great swathes of society believing that AOL was the internet, and that anything outside the walled garden was dangerous and disreputable.

We know how that worked out: the internet growing at a fantastic rate as broadband made always on connectivity a reality, and the AOL mall suddenly seeming like a very small and rather dated place.

We're just getting started with the major transformations in society now that modern digital social participation conventions are widely understood. As I've said here previously, Facebook , like AOL in the dot com era, has been the only place at scale to congregate….but the digital world, particularly mobile right now, always outgrows the walled gardens.
Digital location, location, location is every bit as important as its bricks and mortar social equivalents, and the Facebook platform and proposition to partners is being seriously tested as it takes on their weight of responsibilities to the financial markets. Twitter is arguably currently better positioned to profit from mobile advertising, being better suited to mobile form factors, and this may impress the financial overlords more in the near term. 

Even as 'social media' is now taken for granted and part of the furniture of life, like smart phones and search engines, the real commercial market of actually hooking up highly targeted marketing to individuals is becoming real, something some of the traditional direct response industry is just beginning to get their heads around. Whether the world's digital population will continue to conveniently congregate upon Facebook and Twitter platforms is open to debate; it's highly likely a new generation will supersede the current one, just as AOL and myspace now seem passé.

In the context of internal business social collaboration, I said within my comment on an Economist article 'In search of serendipity' a couple of years ago 

Deriving tangible business benefits, as opposed to personal social value, is the strategic challenge. The parallel worlds of social life interaction online, with attendant marketing flattery, and the similar technically but completely different world of strategic collaboration intents at scale in business are often dangerously commingled.

Today that conflation of individual social interactions and the collective/collaborative activities of working together is far more designable and achievable, particularly if the business problem to be solved is rooted in conversations between prospects, customers and sellers. The much hyped software company vision of a social collaborative fabric across the entire enterprise is starting to be far more attainable, particularly if the intent is to cross pollinate between silos and organizational groups and to interact with individual customers on the social web. We are going to see hockey stick evolution of modern social enterprise business models as value propositions come into focus and competitive advantages are found.

Tellingly, the reader comments on a social backlash piece by Emma Barnett titled 'Businesses are right to be turning away from social media' in the UK Daily Telegraph are arguably better than the  article, which focuses on a study on 'investment in social media marketing by financial services companies' conducted by Pearlfinders, a polling firm. I haven't seen that report and don't know who commissioned it, but suspect it is someone in the traditional customer relationship management software world. There has been plenty of ineffectual social media marketing in the past, and as a client recently joked for the last couple of years the world's energy problems could have been solved if we'd only been able to hook up the energy put into posturing, advice and thoughts by capturing power from the keystrokes and hot air from countless talking heads and hucksters providing advice on the nascent social media world.

Now we are getting to the interesting, more mature stage in the evolution of digital society where individuals rights and data are protected by legislation and the quality of interactions between vendors and customers becomes more sophisticated and effective. We're leaving the wild west of experimentation and TV infomercial style grandstanding and moving into an era of less intrusive effectiveness. 

Where Facebook and Twitter fit into that world as it evolves will depend on their ability to mutate and fit in with society rather than trying to constrain society into living within their world. The financial markets will want to see effective targeted communication that generates profits and the quarterly clock is ticking...


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