Marketers, Get Ready for the 'Validation Era'

As the 'Friends' Arms Race Escalate, Brands Will Need to Get Into More Intimate Networks

By Published on .

Steve Rubel
Steve Rubel

If there's a clear lesson that emerged out of the past decade, it's this: You can have too much of a good thing. This includes our current obsession with all things social.

There are early signs that the social-media boom is fraying at the edges and that we are entering a new age of intimacy.

Don't just take it from me. If you dig into media-consumption patterns and, in particular, who the public considers an authority, you can see the signs.

Back during the internet's first age, the Commercialization Era (1994-2002), only deep-pocketed corporations were able to establish themselves as authoritative sources. During this time, big media companies and a handful of well-capitalized first movers, like Yahoo, became our trusted sources.

Then the dot-com crash and the glut of bandwidth and storage created an environment that gave rise to social media and the Democratization Era. This age, which began in earnest in 2002, started with blogs, then branched out to include Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The end result is that anyone and everyone could command authority.

Now, however, we have a new challenge: people overload. The public -- brands included -- has been engaging in a "friends" arms race. But there are signs that we know we overdid it and we are longing for quality over quantity. The result is that we are now entering a new age -- the Validation Era.

According to a study conducted by GoodMobilePhones, people don't know 20% of their Facebook friends. And USA Today recently reported that social-media users are "grappling with overload."

In the Validation Era, intimacy is in and "public" may be out -- or at least on the decline. Quality is the new black. What this means is that both individuals and businesses will need to increasingly work harder to earn their way in and remain in our stakeholders' circle of trust.

During the past few months, a host of intimate social networks have started to attract attention from the public, the media and investors.

Many are tied to texting. These emerging players include Path, Beluga (now part of Facebook), Instagram, GroupMe and others. While these services are still nascent, the fact that there's even a market for them indicates change is on the horizon. Should this trend hold, and I believe it will, there are at least three potential implications.

First, companies that take a liberal approach to social media will benefit the most. As workers personally forge more-intimate connections, it will benefit their employers as well. Second, in the Validation Era, expertise rules. Businesses that activate their domain-level experts to share their knowledge across several spheres of media will likely see their ideas penetrate more private networks, either first-hand or through pass-alongs.

Finally, given that intimate social networks do not offer the same reach as wider platforms like Facebook, some of them will explore gently partnering with major brands. GroupMe, for example, recently rolled out several branded partners.

Ultimately what this all means is that the ante to stand out is only going up. Many of the conversations that influence buying decisions will become invisible to us, after years of being out in the open. Pure-play advertising-centric campaigns that overlook the power of validated messages will simply be ignored -- either by audiences directly or by algorithms. Then, social media will need to become 1% of 100 people's job, rather than 100% of just one.

Steve Rubel is senior VP-director of insights at Edelman Digital.
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