In a real-world environment, people are often happy to provide a company with details, but less so online. One study suggests that an ever-increasing 88% of users have provided false information on web forms, if only to get through a lengthy signup process more quickly. Conversely, research by Gigya—who provide social sign-on integration services to business—suggests that the way consumers interact with sites after signing in with a Facebook login is deeper and longer than it would otherwise be.
Where such a social login occurs, a business is unlikely to receive the exact customer data they want immediately, but they will be in a much more trusted position to build a picture of that customer
by subtler means, such as analysing what they’re looking at and asking them simple, occasional questions. The old ways of hooking a customer are out, and the replacement is something that resembles the bit-by-bit development of a personal relationship. In a social world based on conversations, anything that smacks of marketing comes over as the digital equivalent of a clingy suitor.
The balance of power between marketer and marketee has changed dramatically, which has led to powerhouses like IBM, HP and Microsoft investing in social computing research departments. Their studies are showing that people trump brands—talking to Claire from Microsoft might hold more sway with a customer than just talking to plain old Microsoft. It’s the same principle that underpinned Apple’s move into retail at a time when most tech industries were pulling away from the high street. The Apple Store is a friendly face on a secretive empire; it’s a place where the Internet is free and the atmosphere is trendy. Their model seems to be what research labs are discovering to be the norm: if you want to sell products, never be seen to actually sell them.
In order for this relaxed marketing model to work, though, the networks must connect. A social media user might have one or more computers, as well as a smartphone and tablet. On these, that same user might access Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or any one of a host of other networks, none of which are very keen to talk to each other. He might encounter a hundred different websites that invite him to log in with Facebook, or Twitter, or even both. In telephony terms, this would be the equivalent of the subscriber in Arbroath having to set his phone to American AT&T mode to get in touch with his friend overseas, presuming that BT had given him that option, of course. It seems unlikely to prove a sustainable model in the long-term.
For the social business revolution to really take off, the technology has to do the work. When a mobile subscriber switches on their phone, the negotiation with the network happens as part of the start-up process: there are no passwords and no delay. Why not the same concept for social media?
If users could simply allow their computer, mobile or smartphone to sign on to sites automatically—with some form of pseudo-anonymity built in, if necessary—then the promise of constant connection may become reality. Social media and phone accounts could all talk to each other, enabling people to contact both friends and companies in whichever way is most efficient and current for both sides, with the network figuring out the routing without our intervention. With the next generation of mobile networks treating even voice traffic in the same way as data, the time is right for the revolution.
Imagine the possibilities for closing the social loop if social networks became fully conversant with each other. Apps and services like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite do their valiant best to achieve this, but there’s always something that each network’s background interface cannot achieve as well as the website can, and some still persist in requiring yet more separate logins for the app.
Naturally, this could bring with it more regulation and openness, but it might be worth it. Facebook may baulk at the idea of opening their network to Google and Twitter, but in the long run, it may prove to be the very thing that opens them up to even bigger opportunities. In the face of Facebook’s impending flotation, many commentators continue to holler comparative warnings that cite MySpace’s shrinking from shark to minnow. Once a service begins to die, the value to each user of being there lessens, and the churn rate quickly compounds. If users of all the different social services were able to talk to each other, this network effect would exist whether or not users of an individual service began to leave, which would make any fall from grace easier to deal with. MySpace have announced this month that they’ve attracted a million new registered users this year. The boss, Chris Vanderhook, says that the site’s integration with Facebook and Twitter has been the crucial step.
Traditional business wisdom calls for bosses to lay down rules for every eventuality and do whatever they can to minimise exposure to risk, but consumers can be frustrated by such a straitjacket approach. IBM is now training employees in how to manage their digital reputations, rather than waiting to censure them when they do something wrong. The words “these are not the views of my employer” on Twitter biographies are fast becoming clichéd, but accurately represent the discordant relationship between business and leisure. Companies, both online and off, may soon find that they must open up their practices and throw away the old models if they wish to reap the rewards of a social computing future.