Imagine watching Kobe Bryant smash the record for the most points scored at Madison Square Garden on your 60-inch HDTV and, during a replay of Bryant's last shot, a message from your buddy Steve pops up at the bottom of the screen: "Kobe is the man and you owe me $50!"
Or you're shopping for a digital camera on Amazon.com. Instead of combing through strangers' reviews, you have access to a list of recommendations from your friends.
Just a short time ago, this kind of innovation would have seemed lofty, but now it's conceivable that soon all media will be social. Perhaps nothing made this more apparent than the recent CNN/Facebook partnership, which showcased the potential of social networks to a mass audience. CNN.com broadcast the presidential inauguration live, while Facebook, using its new platform Facebook Connect, simultaneously allowed viewers to discuss the event with their friend networks through an instant-status feed displayed on CNN's site.
Experiencing this historical moment in real time with friends online provided a glimpse into the greater value that social networks will serve in our lives. Social media is in an evolution phase and Facebook Connect, along with Myspace Data Availability, Google Friend Connect, OpenId and OAuth are playing a central role in what it will become. These frameworks are working to automatically allow the transfer of data from one site to another, providing both instant access to our friend networks and a singular personal identity anywhere we go on the internet.
Essentially, they serve as portable social graphs, creating a unified "plumbing system" that allows access to our social networks beyond the walls of an individual website, mobile application or IPTV extension. No more painful registrations. No more starting from scratch with each new social networking site or branded social experience.
This opens up a new world of interesting possibilities for brands. It also creates yet another drastic drop in the technical barriers to creating social activity around particular brands or services. In many cases, it alleviates the need for brands to create their own social networks from scratch. Brand loyalists and advocates can simply extend a virtual bridge to a website or experience and invite friends to cross it. However, before brands jump on the social-media bandwagon, there are many considerations that should be weighed. The real question to ask is: How can a brand use social-media tools to provide increased value to its customers?
For instance, creating a presence on Twitter might be a good first step, but what does your brand have to offer that is worth Tweeting? Can you save people money or help someone find a job? Can you make people laugh? Jumping into social media without a clear strategy often devolves into a collection of quick tactics that may not be right for the brand or, more importantly, the consumer.
Instead, marketers should listen and look for opportunities to solve problems. Zappos, an often used example of exceptional customer service, is known to proactively identify and support their customers via Twitter. Consider what sorts of social activity customers would engage in if the barrier to entry was low enough. Experiment and learn. Earn the ear of customers. Then, give them something worth listening to.
Facebook Connect and its ilk put us further on the path to "social media" being embedded in all media. In the meantime, I believe we will see a contraction in the number of new social platforms. Marketers should use this window of opportunity to truly understand not just the tools, but how to evolve and shape their connection to customers.
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Ian Spalter is the creative director for mobile and emerging platforms at R/GA.