Five Organizing Principles for Social Media in 2011

Judy Shapiro Offers Some Calls to Action for the Marketing Industry

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Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro

I can't prognosticate what's going to happen next year. But at about this time last year I wrote that social media would go mainstream. And with Time's selection of Zuckerberg as Man of the Year, it seems I got it right.

So as I reflect back on the past year and think ahead, I'm emboldened enough to suggest what I believe we must tackle next year. In truth, I offer this list more as an industry call to action than as a "prediction" for 2011.

  1. We'll cross the chasm from "one to many" marketing to "many to many" marketing.
    I understand why agency and brand marketers tenaciously cling to the "one to many" marketing model of the last 30 years. "Many to many" challenges our control over customer interactions -- an unpleasant experience to say the least. But technology continues to give Judy Consumer greater control of her online world faster than anyone really expected. This unyielding reality presents troubling difficulties for service companies, such as agencies, who were built on the old model but who now must scurry to retool themselves. Brands are also struggling to productively adapt to this new model given the lack of clear strategies and processes for "many to many" deployment or tracking.

    As we inch our way toward this brave new "many to many" world, it helps to really embrace the principle that, while you can't control the engagement itself anymore, you have to control how you participate in community engagements. In other words -- welcome to the social brand.

  2. Commerce happens in communities of interest -- not social networks.
    First, I'd like to distinguish between a social network and a community of interest, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Social networks or, more aptly, social networking is how we connect with people. The community is why we want to connect. Now you can certainly have social networks that are also communities, like Facebook. People are "pulled" into social networks via technology (e.g., I was "friended"), but people join digital communities of interest by choice.

    Once that difference is clear, we can start to understand why communities of interest monetize more easily than social networks. A community of interest platform is so supportive of e-commerce because buying is a natural way we share our interests within our community. Conversely, monetizing social connections in social networks is really hard because there are only so many ways we will tolerate items being "pushed" by our friends or how many ads we will see before fatigue sets in.

    Taking this principle to the real world, we can see that a focused community of interest with 300 people who love fly fishing will be far more engaged and monetizable than a Facebook page with 10,000 vague "likes." Proof that this works in the real world abound; LinkedIn monetizes its business-oriented community of interest well, TechCrunch monetizes its community of tech/VC folks and, on the consumer side, Paltalk (where I used to run marketing) profitably monetizes its thousands of video-based communities of interest that cover a wide range of topics like politics, music, business and tech.

  3. Learn that small is good.
    If you buy into premise No. 2, namely that communities of interest are where commerce happens, then you have a tough scale problem to solve. No matter how engaged these community folks might be, each community of interest is likely to be small. New tech companies are solving this scale issue by creating new ways to generate mass audience reach from niche communities. Netshelter is one example of a tech company that has created a network of technology publishers. Another example is the "Community of interest Network" (COIN) approach of our company, engageSimply, where we deliver highly curated, highly focused communities of interest.

    This "right sizing" of the internet has a significant ripple effect. For instance, as people migrate back to smaller, trusted communities, this, in turn, will reshape the creation of content, according to Hank Wasiak, partner at The Concept Farm: "Hyper-local/hyper-current connectivity and consumer engagement will give rise to a topical, customizable, actionable and entertaining video content produced proficiently, prolifically and efficiently."

    It's an important insight that great content will be hyper-personalized and real-time. Another, even more noteworthy impact of this "many to many" community scaled internet is that many more people can participate in this environment, so the wealth generated from it can be far more broadly and globally dispersed -- a noble outcome by any measure. Bottom line: In 2011 we will see that quality of engagement delivered in aggregated communities of interest will trump quantity of impressions delivered in one humungous "social network."

  4. Social media will remain hard for companies to execute, but help is on the way.
    There's no getting around this, because social media goes against the very nature of a corporation. The disconnect starts at the philosophical level, because social networks are about individual connections, and companies were created to detach the "business" from individuals. It goes downhill from there as marketers struggle to tackle basic issues: who owns social media in a company; what does our investment in social media get us; how do we protect the company's interests; and what technology do we use. These questions reveal the utter lack of processes, guidelines and standards in moving forward.

    One might despair at the situation, except we see that from the chaos, structure is emerging, led by new tech engagement companies that are forging a social media platform with mashups. For example, look to Blend Technologies, which is developing online/mobile platforms to enable social communities to generate multiple revenue streams, or Parallel 6, which is a very new mashup of social, mobile and rewards technology. Thankfully, albeit slowly, we are starting to operationalize all social activity into a singular, new functional model so we can curate users profitably.

  5. Is the social media technology bubble about to burst?
    I pose this last as a question perhaps unconsciously to prevent it from gaining substance, but this has brewing for a while in my mind. I first observed in June that a great many VCs are investing a great deal into social media technologies, but none seemed to be concerned about how these technologies actually got into market. I struggled to understand, for instance, the incentive for a huge agency to deploy a new, cool social media technology when there's little to no billing to offset the labor. Or, how practical is it for a client to introduce any technologies given the level of buy-in required from IT, other brand or business people?

    Which brings me back to why the "bubble bursting" scenario looms large in my mind. IMHO, the current land grab in social/mobile technology is driving ridiculous valuations, which overheat the market, in turn causing the creation of even more new companies. This ultimately results in a marketing tech glut with challenging channel issues. That's the prime description of a "bust" in the making. But what set off alarm bells in my head was Groupon's rejection of Google's $6B bid. The shock was followed by the bigger shock at the high valuation for such a "slim" business when you look under the hood. It is a high labor/no proprietary tech company that invites lots of competition. Worse, its hurdles for advertiser participation make it really logistically hard for brands, which may dampen "repeat" demand in the future. The final shocker was that the Groupon team thought they had so much more headroom above $6B (SFX of glass cracking).

    So why did Google offer so much? My only possible explanation can be summed up in two words: irrational exuberance. And we all know what happened the last time we heard that phrase. I hope we can avoid reliving history by creating new spaces of technology that allows us to productively integrate these technologies into an interaction engine that comes under the marketer's control.

There you have it, my list of what I think marketers will be focused on in 2011. It may be not a sexy prediction list, but I'm content to focus on how the real business of marketing gets done in the real world.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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