The End of ‘Social Media’

This is the time of year when a lot of people make predictions. I’ll resist that urge, though, and instead present a plea: Let’s make 2011 the year we stop talking about “social media.”

It’s not that social media is no longer important. On the contrary, there’s almost no media today that isn’t social. The problem with much of the discussion is that it’s been focused on tools, and tools are far less important than what people do with them. Now that everyone knows the basics of Facebook and Twitter, things start to get interesting.

January 1 marks the beginning of a new decade, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of how much changed in the decade just completed. Ten years ago, almost no one had heard of Google, there was no online video and consumer ratings were unknown. We used cell phones primarily for voice calls and content management systems less functional than WordPress cost a half million dollars.

In early 2004 Technorati counted about a million blogs on the Internet and Facebook was just getting off the ground. Seven years, 200 million blogs, nearly 600 million Facebook members and a few billion YouTube videos later the information landscape has been completely transformed. Stunning.

We have achieved a goal Bill Gates coined 20 years ago called “information at your fingertips.” Want to know who said “There’s a sucker born every minute?” Tap, tap, click and you’re there (it wasn’t P.T. Barnum, BTW). Interested in the film history of the movie star you’re watching? IMDB has an app for that.

This new reality of instant information access will transform our economy and our culture fundamentally. It’s already beginning. A friend who runs an auto dealership tells me that customers today typically know more about the cars they want to buy than his own salespeople do. Some now come into the showroom knowing precisely what other people have paid for cars at his dealership within the last couple of months. Think of how that changes his business. And what’s happening in auto sales will happen in every single industry.

Over the next few years we will learn to take for granted that advice from people just like us is available whenever we need it, and the tools to deliver this information will get much better. This will change the way we make decisions, and that will change nearly everything else*. Companies that don’t provide significant value will struggle to survive. Weak products will disappear quickly from the market and advertising won’t be able to save them. Our range of options for buying and selling products and services will expand by orders of magnitude thanks to global connectivity.

Businesses will need to empower all their employees with much more information and education because customer will no longer tolerate “I’ll have to speak to my supervisor.” Organizations will flatten and fragment because vertical hierarchies move too slowly. Corporations will divest non-strategic businesses because slimmer profit margins won’t support them.

In short, we’re all going to become a lot more efficient at doing what we do. This will cause a lot of pain in the short term; one of the reasons we’re in a “jobless recovery” right now is that businesses are learning to do more with less. In the end, these changes will be no less dramatic than those brought about by the Industrial Revolution; only this revolution will take a couple of decades instead of a couple of centuries to complete.

Much of this change will be brought about by a few elegantly simple tools: Ethernet, the Internet Protocol, hypertext, RSS, HTML and a handful of others. See what happens when people apply innovation to the tools they use?

Social media is rapidly ending ignorance, at least in the developed world. Over the 10 years, this new reality will reshape our lives. It’s going to be an exciting ride, and I hope I get the opportunity to stick around for it. Have a great holiday and I’ll talk to you on the other side!

*Books I read this year that do an exceptional job of sketching out the post-social media world include The Hyper-Social Organization by Francois Gossieaux and Ed Moran, Open Leadership by Charlene Li and Do It Wrong Quickly by Mike Moran. The best book I’ve ever read on media transformation is The Chaos Scenario by Bob Garfield. It’s also funny as hell.

Twitter Questions Answered

Should you use a company logo or a personal photo as your Twitter picture?

Should personal Twitter accounts be used for company business?

Is there a different mix of tweets for a B2B versus a B2C audience?

Good questions! And in my most recent contribution to BtoB magazine, I take a shot at answering them. These are some of the 15 questions that we weren’t able to address in an hour-long webcast called “The Secrets of B2B Twitter Success” that I did earlier this month with Avaya’s Paul Dunay and CME Group’s Allan Schoenberg. You can view that webcast on-demand here, as well as the rest of BtoB‘s Digital Edge virtual conference.

Paul, Allan and I have also cooked up an interesting way to address the questions as a group. I’ll point you to those results next issue.

Tip of the Week: Google Forms

A little-known but wonderful feature of Google Documents is its forms capability. You can build reasonably functional surveys like this one and capture results in a spreadsheet. There are lots of ways to use this feature. Whenever I present a speech or training class, I send a short form to the organizers asking for feedback. You can also use forms to collect leads or build subscriber lists. They’re also easily embeddable in Web pages. Google makes the process of creating them simple. Here’s a nice introduction to forms.

Just for Fun: Truly Terrible Driving

It’s unfortunate that this hilarious YouTube video is entitled “Women Drivers Compilation” because women aren’t the only people capable of doing stupid things with their cars. If you can get past the sexism, though, enjoy the absurdity of the actions pictured here. My favorite is the driver who is wrestled to the ground by a gas pump. Where would YouTube be without security cameras?

Five Lessons From the Web 2.0 Summit

I had a chance to attend the recent Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco and hear from some of the business leaders of the new Internet, including the CEOs of Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and Twitter. Here are five key insights I took away.

1. Make Marketing a Service to Customers – I didn’t write down who said this, but the comment stuck with me long after the conference was over. The traditional role of marketing has been to create an image or deliver a message. Service had little to do with it. But in the new world of tuned-out customers, the only way to get make an impression is to be helpful, entertaining or memorable.

This is one reason we’re seeing a race by B2B marketers in particular to give away tactics and information that were once their source of competitive advantage. It’s the only way to get prospects to pay attention. Marketers need to ask themselves a new question: “How can I help?”

2. You Need a Mobile Strategy, and Faster Than You Probably Thought. Forrester Research now predicts that smart phones will be the dominant Internet access device in the US within three years. Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley sees smart phone shipments surpassing PCs in 2012 (Here’s the video of her terrific presentation). In countries like China, the PC was never even much of a factor. The speed at which this shift is occurring is breathtaking. Smart phones have eclipsed all other electronic devices in their rate of adoption (see chart below).

Smart Phone GrowthGoogle’s Eric Schmidt made an interesting point: smart phones are actually more useful than PCs because they know more about the user, including location, and can deliver a more personal level of utility.

This doesn’t mean PCs are going away. Rather, the plunging price of flat-panel displays will make PCs more of a comprehensive dashboard for a user’s business and entertainment needs. However, the browser will be only one of several ways people will access the Internet.

On the smart phone, that access will be by applications. Apple opened the iPhone to developers only three years ago, and already more than a half-million apps have been delivered. Other platforms are just ramping up their own app ecosystems.

There is a huge free-for-all coming in mobile apps, and nearly every business needs to be thinking about how to participate. Consider item 1 above. How can you use a mobile app to provide service to the customer? Whether it’s a coupon, shopping tip, reference source, comparison engine or something else, you’ll need to address the needs of this rapidly growing mobile audience.

Mark Zuckerberg at Web 2.0 Summit

3. Social Is the Killer App. While you’re pondering question 2, consider this one. Mark Zuckerberg was poised and mature in a nearly one-hour interview with John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly. The Facebook founder acknowledged that great power carries great responsibility and pledged to be more responsive to the privacy concerns of members.

One memorable point he made is that “social” is a powerful feature of software. Several Facebook applications, like photo albums, were functionally weak in their early versions but were a huge hit with members because they were easily shareable, he noted. This is an important point to remember. Loading up on features quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns. Adding the ability to share, reuse, mash up and comment creates a whole different level of value.

BTW, Zuckerberg reminded me of a young Bill Gates in looks, mannerisms and the clarity with which he sees complex issues. Like Gates, he has an uncanny ability to find a logical path to a decision or point of view. It will be interesting to watch his star rise.

4. Simulations Are A Powerful Incentive To Engage. Did you know that 320 million people have played a Zynga game and that the company now employs 1,300 people? Have you ever even heard of Zynga? If you’re a B2B marketer, you probably haven’t, but I’ll bet your kids have. Farmville is a mega-hit on Facebook and Zynga has nine other social gaming applications based on classic games like poker and Battleship. Founder Mark Pincus said the company has peak usage of more than three million concurrent users. Yow.

Why should you care? Because simulation games are not only a great way to learn but also an excellent tool for modeling business processes. Consider Cisco’s myPlanNet, a game that challenges players to build a business as the CEO of an Internet service provider. It has racked up more than 75,000 Facebook fans and 50,000 downloads for what is essentially a B2B training and marketing tool. Check out the wall posts on Facebook. It’s not the usual gaming trash talk. Players are learning how the Internet works.

IBM recently released CityOne, a game that simulates sustainable urban planning. These are tools that put real problem-solving scenarios in a gaming context and they are having enormous success. Can a sim fit in with your digital marketing plan?

Steven Berlin Johnson at Web 2.0 Summit

5. Everything on the Web. Steven Berlin Johnson gave a brief but provocative talk about the rate of change in publishing. “For the first time in 20 years, the link and the URL are losing market share,” he said, noting that there is no standardized way to link to the page of a digital book.

Johnson proposed an idea he called “Web redundancy:” Every digital content asset should have a corresponding linkable version. “Unless [publishers] embrace Web redundancy as a strategy, all those extraordinary words will continue to live in the remote continents of the unlinkable,” he said.

I was reminded of all the press releases I continue to receive by e-mail that have no online counterparts. This is old-media thinking. Why ask the reporter to rewrite your words when it’s simpler to link to them? Why forego the search engine optimization benefits of an inbound referral, especially when tweets and links are the means by which people increasingly publish information? Every single content asset you produce for the media or the general public should be accessible on the Web.

This year’s Web 2.0 Summit was streamed in its entirety. The conference, which is in its seventh year, is a great way to tap into the trends that will define the next 12 months. If you can’t fork over the $4,200 (and thanks to John Battelle and my friends at Procter & Gamble, I didn’t have to), it’s worth tuning in to the YouTube archive or watching the streamed coverage from next year’s event.

Age of the Tablet Has Begun

Another insight I got at Web 2.0 Summit was that tablet computers are coming up the adoption curve much faster than I expected. I tend to be a skeptic about new technology, and since tablets have been around for a decade in various forms, I didn’t expect much of Apple’s entry. The Summit changed my thinking. I’m now convinced that tablets will all but displace laptops within the next few years. In short, tablets are built for what people want to do with a portable device, while laptops are essentially scaled-down desktop PCs. Here’s my reasoning.

Tip of the Week: Foursquare Tips

I never really got the point of the game behind Foursquare, but I am definitely a fan of the tips that are proliferating on this location-aware service for smart phones. When my wife and I were recently looking for a restaurant, I checked in on Foursquare and found a link to a limited-time promotion for 20% off the price of a meal at a nearby establishment. That helped seal the decision. I checked in at DFW airport recently and found scores of suggestions about where to find the best Mexican food, the widest variety of beer, the best place to watch planes take off and the most comfy spots with power outlets. As Foursquare has grown, the value and quality of tips has greatly improved. Try it on your favorite mobile device.

Just for Fun: Wordle

Words can be beautiful. Wordle proves it. This delightful little free Java applet takes any block of text you give it and creates colorful word clouds.It works with any language that uses Arabic characters and you can experiment with dozens of fonts, layouts and colors. Then you can save to a public gallery (see point 3 above) and embed on your website. The Wordle below was created from the text in this newsletter.