Are you ready for your business Web site to become a forum for a global conversation about you—a place where your fans sing your praises and critics trash your shortcomings? Like it or not, that's where the Web is heading as social networking spreads beyond the current walled-garden landscape to become an Internet-wide phenomenon.
We are in the first inning of this transition, with Google's Open Social, Facebook's Connect and several smaller strategies preparing to duke it out for dominance. Regardless of which wins, the goal is the same: take the essential features of social networks and apply them to every nook and cranny of the Web.
If you're active on social networks, you know the frustration of today's siloed landscape. Each network has its own proprietary system for profiles, “friends” and collaboration. This makes about as much sense as locomotive makers each using a different gauge of track in the early days of railroads.
Our profiles and relationships shouldn't be limited to branded communities; they should be persistent and portable wherever we go. Technologies being put in place today will make that possible. When I go to Cisco.com, I'll see that Bill and Mike have left messages extolling the company's customer service, while Patty has posted a link to a competitor and Ernie has told me exactly how much he paid for that new office telephone system.
If this sounds like digital graffiti, don't worry. These conversations will only be visible to the people we choose to admit to our social network. In fact, you may not even see what your customers are saying unless they let you into the conversation.
The technology to socialize the Web already exists. The only barriers are cultural and competitive, but those obstacles will fade as users realize the compelling benefits. Last month Google demonstrated Wave, a technology that lets people create discussions and embed them in other sites via a network of linked widgets. It's a first step; more will follow.
The implications of this shift are enormous. Marketing messages will be vetted instantly and openly. Buying histories will be captured and selectively shared among trusted groups. User profiles will become a form of currency. Customers will grant businesses limited access to their personal information in exchange for customized experiences. Buyers will share everything they know about the companies they deal with. Customers will take charge of their markets.
Forrester Research's Senior Analyst Jeremiah Owyang has called the next few years the “era of social colonization.” As the Web becomes a platform for interaction, its utility will change forever. We can't even begin to predict the ripple effects of this, but one thing is certain: The survivors will be those businesses that take to heart the principles of transparency and continuous customer engagement. M