The Future of Social Networks Lies in Shared Communities
As social networks continue to proliferate, the gap connecting consumers between them continues to widen.
Consumers have separate identities at each social networking site they visit. The numbers tell the story: According to results from a recent North American Technographics Media and Marketing Online Survey from Forrester Research, among U.S. online consumers who visit Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace at least monthly, 42 percent juggle at least two social network IDs. And 63 percent of those in social networks also are logging in to discussion forums ― again with separate IDs. These IDs don't work outside of the social networks consumers belong to, making it difficult to keep track of friends and contacts when they may be on other sites.
But according to a recent report from Forrester Research, The Future of the Social Web, by Jeremiah Owyang, soon that may begin to change. Social networks are evolving with technology to enable consumers to have portable identities to bring with them from site to site, allowing separate social networks to become a shared social experience.
5 eras of social networking
The report tracked the evolution, and future, of social networks with five distinct eras, including the following:
- Era of social relationships. The initial stage of the social Web, which was ushered in in the mid-90s. During this era, people connected to each other using simple profiles and friending features to share information, discussions and media.
- Era of social functionality. Today's social networks have evolved into platforms that support social interactive applications and provide new meaning and utility to communities, but relationships are still locked up within sites.
- Era of social colonization. Beginning later this year, technologies such as OpenID and Facebook Connect will let individuals traverse the Internet with their social connections in tow, blurring the boundaries of social networks and transforming every Web site into a social experience.
- Era of social context. As sites begin to recognize people’s personal identities and social relationships, they'll customize visitors’ experiences based on their preferences, behaviors and who their friends are. In this stage, social networks will absorb features of e-mail and become a base of operations for everyone’s online experiences.
- Era of social commerce. Beginning in about two years, social networks will become more powerful than corporate Web sites and CRM systems as they'll be a repository for identities and relationships. Communities will become the driving force for innovation, forcing brands to cater to them, resulting in a power shift toward the connected customer.
Tips to prepare your company
Marketers must be willing and ready to make changes in how they reach customers, especially within social networks, in the coming years, according to the report. Here are some tips the report provided to help you get started:
- Focus on your most vocal advocates. New forms of advocacy will emerge as social applications systems enable rating friends’ reputations for reliability. Because consumers trust their peers, brands must learn to rely on their advocates more than ever. As a result, develop relationships with key influencers within communities, win them over and allow them to carry the message to the community. Offer incentives like group discounts to advocates and their followers. Those with fewer real fans will choose authentic and transparent sponsored conversations instead.
- Evolve direct mail from broadcast to social. Because consumers will control the messages they receive, they'll be able to see or block information from brands. But trust is high among peers, so messages from friends will get through. Develop a new form of e-mail marketing that encourages consumers to forward offers to their friends as endorsements. People whose friends sign up will become trusted brand advocates.
- Focus on pull as opt-in metrics replace conversions. With the registration pages used to measure conversions headed toward extinction, be ready instead to seek and measure opt-ins. Develop a new form of a social contract that coaxes consumers to share information in exchange for premium content, discounts or other special services.
- Prepare internally for these shifts ― from the top down. Senior marketers should start by participating in the social Web themselves, leaning on staff marketers who understand social networking and encouraging them to educate others. To develop instant trust, consider hiring or consulting with marketers from the social networking community itself.