"Social media" was the term du jour in 2008. Consumers, companies, and marketers were all talking about it. We have social media gurus, social media startups, social media books, and social media firms. It is now common practice among corporations to hire social media strategists, assign community managers, and launch social media campaigns, all designed to tap into the power of social media.
But social media today is a pure mess: it has become a collection of countless features, tools, and applications fighting for a piece of the pie.
Facebook, a once groundbreaking online community, has become the ant colony of third-party applications. Twitter users now have a dozen or so additional applications they can use to overcome Twitter's ever-present shortcomings. People spread themselves across a number of tools and maintain different networks on each (large portions of which they don't even know), making it nearly impossible to decide what to share and with whom.
Users, marketers, and companies face an incredible amount of noise, too. For every new application that relies on a network, another crops up that helps users manage it. While "eyeballs" used to be the coveted metric, both ad publishers and investors now realize that having smaller well-targeted niches can lead to much better returns than marketing to one large undifferentiated mass of users.
Meaning and connection -- two key anchors of all things social media -- are corroding by the day as people's ability to organize their experiences and find the relevance of their networks declines. Social media, in essence, is bumping up against its own ceiling, no longer able to serve the needs of those living within its walls; and for these reasons, social media as we know it is changing course.
Social Media is Evolving
Social media is morphing into a holistic experience that speaks to people's social needs in new ways. If you are a CEO of a startup who is focusing on the next generation of social media, here are 10 areas you'll need to take into consideration in the coming year:
1. It's About People
We're moving away from "users," "customers," and "shoppers": social media is bringing back the human element to all digital interaction. People now deliberately seek meaningful connection, self-expression, and a relevant and receptive community. Forrester's Social Technographic research and Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff's Groundswell represent a huge step towards a new kind of behavior-driven segmentation, but companies that want to succeed will need to take it further and tap into people's evolving needs, using the social media context as the new baseline.
2. Creating Meaning and Value
Social media will no longer be about features and applications. These have become a dime a dozen. People will be looking to get tangible and relevant value out of their social experience; they'll be looking for meaning and for order. "Social media online is no different from social media offline," said Brent Csutoras at a recent Social Media Club event. People will be looking for ways to keep their networks going regardless of device or platform. They will connect around meaningful topics and have live and simultaneous conversations within parameters they themselves define, which will bring relevance back to their interaction with others.
3. Enabling Convergence
FriendFeed -- now both a destination and an API -- is growing rapidly, despite a miserable wiki-like interface and interactive experience. That's because people are at a loss when it comes to pulling their conversations together from various sources and assigning meaning to them. Companies that deliver beautifully designed, easy-to-use, searchable, flexible, aggregating platforms will become more important than any social media tool by itself. Deb Schultz, a San Francisco-based web strategist, compares social media to an art exhibit and says people will "curate their live presence through the web ecosystem as needed." Noovo and Zannel are examples of early attempts to enable this.
4. Building a Truly Cross-Platform Experience
The iPhone experience has changed the playing field for users, companies, and developers. In Q1 of 2009 alone, Apple sold 4.4 million iPhones, and Google's Android and the new Palm continue to build on the cross-platform, application- and service-driven model. In the new landscape of social media, people are seeking solutions that seamlessly cut across mobile, web, and live interaction, hopping on and off them like double-decker buses, all with the same pass.
5. Creating Relevant Social Networks
People will create, join, and seek social networks that enable them to have meaningful and relevant experiences with each other. They will measure their return on investment (time spent, level of disclosure, etc.) in replies, comments, their ability to influence, and the value of their learning. Rachel Masters, VP of Strategic Relationships at Ning -- a social network that grew a massive 388% in 2008 -- says, "the Internet is confusing because it can be used to replicate almost any previous medium. Ning addresses this by delivering social networks that allow people to connect around the things they love."
6. Innovating in the Advertising Space
Ad publishers and the attached ecosystem will continue to lose revenue until they realign their understanding of what appeals to people who are conversing, connecting, and expressing. The next phase of social media is a gold mine of targeted niche demographics. Nuconomy, an Israeli startup, experiments in creating and delivering highly targeted, dynamic display advertising. Shahar Nechmad, Nuconomy's co-founder and CEO, says that, on average, Nucomony customers see six to nine times higher click-through rates on targeted ads than on non-targeted ones. "People do click on ads and buy things in the same session," says Nechmad. Ad agencies and publishers that are able to quickly realign their thinking and create an innovative and relevant product discovery experience will gain significant competitive advantage.
7. Helping People Organize Their "Old" Social Media Ecosystem
As aggregating platforms enter the field, people will seek to bring order to the endless bits of information available to them. Video tagging, conversation archiving, taking cloud computing to the next stage, and making search more relevant are some of the new baseline requirements. These represent a significant opportunity for companies willing to undertake this massive endeavor.
8. Connecting with the Rest of the US and the World
With some exceptions, today's active social media users are early adopters. In the next one to two years, the benefits of social media will cross the chasm and reach the mainstream, not only in the US but around the world -- especially in community-driven regions like Southeast Asia and countries like Brazil, Russia, and Germany. Companies will need to understand the explicit and implicit differences between adoption patterns in different countries and adjust their products to meet these different needs.
9. Preparing for New Social Media Jobs
It has been a harsh year for marketing firms. Companies are looking to divert marketing dollars to more targeted social media destinations. And this is just the beginning. David Spark, founder of Spark Media Solutions, says that businesses will need to go beyond paying people to Tweet or put up a Facebook page. Social media's new job descriptions will call on subject-matter experts who can plan for relevant interaction within networks and aggregating platforms and bring together products, services, and people.
10. Making Money
The next phase of social media will bring plenty of lucrative opportunities. With the rise of aggregating platforms, social networks, and new mobile and location-based features, we're bound to see an increase in targeted and personalized ads, "freemium" packaging, revenue sharing between strategic partners, and a flow from the offline world to online social engagement (such as when real goods complement virtual ones).
Social media has forever changed the way people use technology to interact with others, but it can no longer satisfy people's needs in its current form and must change course.
The new form of social media will be about creating "whole products" and complete experiences, all in real time, across the web, mobile, and live. Each user will be able to create his or her own experience using tools, features, and apps that magically coalesce. People will be able to move seamlessly through information that is available to them anywhere, anytime, sharing rich content with a rich set of groups and networks that they themselves define. Innovative companies that are able to listen to these needs and deliver products based on them will not only survive but thrive in the coming months and years as people eagerly advance on the inviting waters of the new social alchemy.