Technology changes quickly, people change more slowly

Manny from Black Books says "I'm a prostitute robot from the future"Last February I asked whether social media could become a mass media. It’s one of the more considered posts on this blog, so if you haven’t yet read it I would recommend it. The general crux was that social media could only become mass when it moved away from super-serving the tech savvy, and more closely identifying with the needs and desired benefits of the average person.

In it, I reference the adoption curve. Adoption curves work extremely well for technology, whereby regular innovations boost capabilities and cut costs. New (and, in retrospect, successful) technologies see the eager niche pay the premium to be first, with the rest following once the benefits have been clearly established and the price has fallen.

But when it comes to behaviours, or services that manifest these, we see much slower shifts. This is because our selves and our needs remain consistent as the world changes around us.

Social media may be new but many of us have the inherent need to be social. Is it mainstream yet?

As of writing, there are 29.9m Facebook users in the UK. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that its 750m members worldwide are sharing are over 4 billion items each day.

Those are big numbers. While far from universal – and indeed there are suggestions that usage in some areas might be plateauing – it does appear that Facebook is mainstream.

One of the main reasons for this is Facebook’s sheer versatility. It can be something different to each person.

  • It can be a layer across the web or a portal
  • It can be a referral engine or an aggregator
  • It can be an extension of real life or a stand-alone identity
  • It can be a place to chat to friends, to the public or to brands
  • It can be a photo album, a games site, a store, an events manager, a blog etc etc

This has been vital to Facebook’s growth. Rather than enforce a particular type of behaviour, or a particular set of social norms, it has enabled the userbase to transfer their unique preferences within the existing infrastructure. Facebook lets people do what they want, but in a place where network effects can enhance the experience.

It is familiar, but also better. A killer combination.

SIDENOTE: Partially due to the above, I’m reserving judgement on Google+ until it becomes apparent how it will integrate into all of the other Google services. In its current guise, it isn’t more than a shiny new object.

But while mainstream, there is no adoption curve. This has three implications.

  1. It is not inevitable that everyone will use Facebook in future – Technologies change and services evolve, but needs and beliefs are stable. Behaviours, the manifestation of needs that may be facilitated by services, thus change fairly slowly.
  2. Facebook users do not share or use the service in the same way – The Zuckerberg law of sharing ranks up their with his proclamation of a person with multiple personas being dishonest in its idiocy. More people may join Facebook, but the volume, frequency and breadth of their participation will vary massively. Power laws will persist – for instance I wouldn’t be surprised if 80% of those 4bn items shared a day are generated by 20% of the userbase.
  3. Not every type of participation that Facebook facilitates will become widespread – to use the well-worn mother analogy; my mother is on Facebook. She might “like” a photo or even comment on it, but she isn’t going to suddenly become a social media specialist. My mother will not become a blogger, no matter how easy Tumblr makes it. And that is because she has no real need to be one.

New services grow in two stages – displacing old behaviours and activities, and extending them. Social media has succeeded in the first stage, but the second stage is still in progress.

Some activities have been displaced because the benefits of shifting them online are clear. Why show the holiday photos to ten groups of people separately, when you can put them online for everyone to see at once? Why wait until tomorrow to talk to people about what you watched on TV tonight when you can do it immediately after, or even during the programme?

The benefit can also be in simplicity. While my mum may never Tumblr, its simplicity will convince others who possess the need to share or opine to try it out. Ten to fifteen years ago, a prospective blogger would have had to know a programming language and hard-code everything in. I’m sure those Geocities sites took ages.

Extending or creating new behaviours has proven more difficult. For instance, Foursquare (the concept of checking in is still pretty new and alien to most) has struggled to get beyond a niche. Conversely, services like What’s App, which concentrate on displacement, are thriving.

Again, making things simple can help create new behaviours. Going down the 1-9-90 model, it is also far easier to contribute content as well as create it. No longer does one have to master the intricate social norms of a community before venturing a cautious post. Now there are buttons, gestures and such like to get people going. The next step beyond that is automation. I’ll never need to compile a list of my top artists, for example, because last.fm does that for me.

SIDENOTE: Last.fm could be an example of a service that automates too well. The only time I seem to visit the website is to download the plug-in for a new computer.

Overall, given Facebook’s growth, it is fair to say that social media is mainstream. But possessing a social media profile is very different to creating content or exponentially increase the items of one’s life that is being shared. Some social media activities – sharing photos, writing status updates – may be widespread, but the industry still has a long way to go in order to convince the mainstream of the ways in which social services can help fulfil these longstanding needs.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/strangefrontier/5771431767

Recommended Reading – 25th July 2010

The second and final group of links from the past month I recommend you click on is below:

sk

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Spreading birthday cheer

Yesterday was my birthday. Among the birthday messages I received was an email from Stick Sports.

This is an online game that I hadn’t thought about for a while, let alone played. Yet they used the information I provided in my sign-up, to send me a message. This in turn has reminded me of the site (I haven’t gone back to play Stick Cricket or Stick Baseball yet, but I’m writing about it).

Some people might consider this an invasion of privacy since I didn’t give explicit permission for them to contact me. But it is an innocuous yet relevant message to me, that is extremely simple to administer. As such, I’m amazed more companies don’t do it.

For instance, the majority of emails in my inbox yesterday were Facebook notifications, informing me of friends writing messages on my wall. Although personal information is becoming more private, many people do have their birthdays visible. There is a great opportunity for brands or celebrities to send birthday messages to their fans, either to show they are there and listening, or to inform them of a special birthday-only offer. A simple, but effective means of communicating with supporters.

This is a ploy that can also be used for research panel respondents. For instance, why not give them additional tokens for prize draws on their birthday? It doesn’t cost anything and has the potential to improve their engagement with the panel.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gizzypooh/539662773/

Fighting potential irrelevance

Disclaimer: My employer, Essential Research, has worked with several of the UK network providers in the past, and hopes to do so again in future. All opinions expressed in this blog post – and this blog in general – are my own.

The first to market isn’t always the ultimate category “winner”. There were cars before Ford and social networks before Facebook, to give just two examples. Incumbents may hold the greatest influence, but through innovations and developments of products and services their position is rarely fully secure. Eventually a change of business strategy will be required.

I’m wondering if this is what the mobile phone networks are about to undergo.

For the past decade or two, the networks have had the power in the mobile market. They controlled the distribution – through both spectrum and their walled garden approach to content and services. Hence the huge bidding war when the UK government auctioned off spectrum for 3G a decade ago.

But this looks to be changing, as penetration of internet-enabled handsets that access the world wide web – both on a 3G network and on Wifi – shift the focus. While the debate over open access (symbolised by Google) and closed access (symbolised by Apple) continues, it appears that the shift in focus is to the detriment of the networks but the benefits of the operating system, and thus the handset.

This article – on the news that O2 and Orange are joining an open platform for applications – says that ‘The mobile phone networks fear that at the moment they are in danger of becoming little more than “dumb pipes in the air”‘

I’m sure they have methods to standardise the services across different screen sizes, resolutions, handsets and operating systems but it will be interesting to see whether it can compete with the OS based offerings of Apple, BlackBerry, Google and Nokia.

Do this mean mobile networks will go the way of ISPs? Viable businesses, but not wielding the level of power that AOL et al were hoping to achieve.

It is possible, but not inevitable. The main issue for networks is that when they work, they are invisible. We only notice when they fail, and most people will only contact network customer care when they want to complain (sales calls/contract renewals excepted). No matter how good (or otherwise) this service is, it is still ultimately dealing with negative issues.

A handset and operating system should also “just work”, but its visibility means we can also be delighted – whether through eye-catching menus or a satisfying tactility to the buttons or touch screen.

This visibility also means the handset is more closely associated with the service. Networks are still defined by the coverage and quality of voice communication above all else.

The networks risk becoming a utility, where price and quality are the only defining features.

The need to diversify is apparent, but I don’t think this should be in applications.

Aside from the handset/OS competition, there is a huge question-mark over the long-term viability of the applications market. Should HTML5 launch and grow, the balance of power may once again shift – this time from the operating system to the software or service provider. To the consumer, the delivery mechanism is largely irrelevant – they just want the best possible service in the most convenient format.

I’m also sceptical about exclusive content deals. Orange have successfully done this in France, but it raised anti-competitive issues and, ultimately, I think audience scale will mean openness will win out (I also think this is true with handsets trying to get content exclusivity).

Instead, I think partnerships – across a range of industries – are the answer. Mobile networks already have a significant presence in certain areas – such as O2 with live music and Orange with film – and these can be extended. There are also plenty of opportunities to provide complementary services – O2 moving into finance seems like a logical step, for instance.

Like gambling, one of the hardest things in business (so I’ve been told) is knowing when to call it quits. The era of networks dominating the monetisation of content and internet-based services looks like it is drawing to close. Yet there are many potential new revenue streams to develop. Whether picking the right strategy requires the luck of the gambler or not, time will tell.

sk

Image credit: Me

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Can social media become a mass media?

My short answer is “Yes, if it continues to evolve”.

But there are numerous challenges to overcome within this evolution process.

SIDENOTE: Throughout this blog, I’ll be referring to social media in the singular. I know that technically media denotes plurality, but, to me at least, phrases such as “social media aren’t mass” sounds weird. Well, weirder than “social media isn’t mass” anyway.

Isn’t social media mass already?

I may have already lost a few readers by this point, who refuse to believe my basic premise that social media isn’t mass.

And they will have numbers to back up their spluttering, incredulous rage:

These numbers sound big. They are big. But they aren’t mass.

This is where semantics get involved.

Firstly, for social media I’m referring to platforms or websites whose primary aim is to connect people and facilitate communication – such as social networks, blogs and forums. I’m not considering websites with social widgets or functionality added – such as the comments section on a newspaper website.

Secondly, I believe there is a big difference between a popular media and a mass media. The definition used on Wikipedia is “a section of the media specifically designed to reach a large audience”.

From that definition, and from my general perceptions, I infer that for media to be mass it requires inclusiveness.

And despite the large numbers, social media is not inclusive.

The Diffusion of Innovations

I reference Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations model in a previous post on the iPad. I will go into it in a bit more detail here.

Rogers posited that, within the population, there are five types of person, each with a different relationship with and attitude towards new innovations. The five types progress along a time series

  • The innovator will try something for the sake of it being new
  • The early adopter will try something before most people, but only when he or she is confident that it will be worth it
  • The early majority (or mainstream) come into the frame when they see a new innovation is gaining in popularity and thus must be worth adopting
  • The late majority see a new innovation has proved itself to be worthwhile, and thus they try it
  • The laggards are resistant to new technologies, but will try something when there is little or no alternative

Rogers estimated the proportions in the population to be as laid out in the diagram below:

At Essential Research, we have measured to the population in order to calibrate and weight our data for the Essential Eye, our ongoing exploration of digital media usage and attitudes. Our figures are:

  • Innovators – 6%
  • Early adopters – 11%
  • Early majority – 26%
  • Late majority – 32%
  • Laggards – 25%

If Facebook has 23m UK users in a population of 62m people, that would place it firmly into the early majority stage of diffusion.

Leaving aside my doubts that this figure constitutes 23m unique individuals within the UK, and that as marketers or researchers we are usually (but not always) confining ourselves to adults, I believe social media take-up will shortly plateau unless some big changes are made

Why majority take-up isn’t inevitable

Few, if any, innovations ever reach 100% penetration. There will always be rejectors that go out of their way to avoid certain technologies.

Digital media has the additional hurdle of scepticism among a minority – whether cost, fear of privacy, shame over incomprehension or a belief that they can live their lives quite happily without the internet, thank you, there are a significant minority that never have, and perhaps never will, use the internet.

Anyway, I digress. The main point to note is that early adopters are DIFFERENT to late adopters.

How are they different? They tend to be

  • Younger
  • Higher social class, and more educated
  • More disposable income
  • Greater interest/proximity to science and technology
  • Greater opinion leadership
  • More social

This may seem obvious, but it is vitally important to reflect upon.

The demographic differences aren’t such a huge deal since people age and earn more over time, and it means the user base will always skew to the more commercially attractive audiences. Essential Research Brandheld data bears this out – 64% of all users of social networks via a mobile are aged 16-34 and three quarters are on a contract phone.

However, the attitudinal differences could be a major barrier to social media uptake.

Later adopters advocate things to a lesser degree and are less social. They have smaller friendship groups and are less likely to want to meet new people.

The network effects become less powerful. Latecomers see less benefit. Their investment into the software will bear less reward.

And this is assuming that later adopters can be sold on the idea to begin with. This is not guaranteed.

The mainstream prioritise different benefits

The proposition that convinced the earlier users to adopt social networks will probably not work for the latecomers.

Earlier adopters saw their friends on the site. They saw the software made it easier to keep track of their large and disparate friendship groups. They got to grips with the technology quickly, and found it easy to adapt as the social networks change to accommodate a larger user base.

Yet even in the early majority, we are witnessing problems with adoption. Examples include loud protests over redesigns to Facebook or people getting confused by a simple error within Google’s algorithm.

Two things need to fundamentally change in order convince the mainstream to trial, let alone permanently adopt, social media.

  1. A return to simplicity: Feature creep is a well document problem with iterated software. The earlier adopters – the more vocal power users – may appreciate greater customisation but it raises the barriers to entry for newcomers. The longer they leave it, the harder it is for them to figure out how to use these services. And the greater the chance they abandon them. Apple may have beautifully designed products, but the simple and intuitive interface is the most important part of the design. The core social media service should be simple, with additional functionality optional for those comfortable – the Firefox model, if you will. A quick fix would be for Facebook to offer its lite version as a default.
  2. A realignment in promotion of benefits: Mainstream and late adopters are less inclined to experiment. The benefits to using social networks need to be immediately obvious and tangible. A benefit either gives you something – entertainment or information – or lets you save something – time, money or effort. The more averse to new technology someone is, the harder these benefits are to communicate. Currently, there is plenty of room for platforms, developers and marketers to improve in this area

How social networks can become more attractive

Conventional wisdom might say that the less affluent among us have more time on their hands. 8 hour shifts, no ski-ing holidays in Chamonix etc. They have the social surplus that Clay Shirky talks about. And we’re not expecting them to create a new Wikipedia, just to engage in the social media space.

But, given the current platform, not gonna happen. They will be more likely to stick to their gin and television.

What do people gain from social media that they cannot get elsewhere? Why should they divert their time from their favourite TV shows, or from housework or other chores, in order to “join the conversation”?

Where are the tangible benefits?

Well, they may already be there. They just need to be communicated

  • Facebook and Twitter are building on the fact that they are increasingly responsible for traffic directed to major news sites. Conversely, despite being unfashionable, the portals are still popular. This is primarily because they offer a single place to get all desired information. If Facebook or another social network desire to become a portal, they need to contain, or at least link to, all relevant information for that person in a similar manner to the portals
  • Even if people aren’t social themselves, they may still like to read or hear the opinions of others on topics or areas that interest them. A comparison could be made to radio phone-ins, but with a criteria of entry based on interest rather than geography
  • Vouchering schemes are highly discriminatory, but cost/cost saving is eye-catching. People will gravitate towards the discounts
  • I really like Doc Searls’ idea of Vendor Relationship Management, where potential customers recruit providers instead of companies advertising to potential consumers. This clearly represents an easier route to deciding upon a major purchase, and is far preferable to disruptive advertising or poor performing display advertising.

The final point brings us on to the business model.

The challenges for a successful business

It is one thing to succeed in bringing in an audience. It is another thing to successfully run that business. To my mind, there are three major challenges to overcome before this space can be fully monetized

  1. Competition – in this instance, competition can be a bad thing. Maintaining a presence on a social network requires a major investment of time and effort. People are reticent to needlessly duplicate this. I believe that the low distribution barriers and start-up costs in the digital space mean that there should be no concerns over monopoly activity. Google, Amazon and eBay have all succeeded in this position to date, and there is no reason why Facebook cannot . I see no issue with them maintaining that (sound business strategy permitting, which is where Myspace fell down), with specialist networks operating in its orbit. If I am right, Google Buzz will swiftly fail
  2. Evolution without natural selection – I have quite a large problem with Google Buzz. Dumping a new social network on a group of people without it evolving from innovators downwards is a recipe for rejection. Without any proven benefits among even a minority of users, there is no reason for the average user to adopt it. It could be argued that the average Gmail user is savvier than those of competitor services, but there are as yet no clear benefits to using it. I’ve personally removed it from my Gmail, and it will remain turned off until these benefits become apparent. Throughout the evolution of social networks, there will always be the tension between placating the current users while reaching out to the sceptics. This requires a careful balancing act between keeping pace with the ambitions and needs of the power users, and the more conservative use of the later adopters
  3. The commercial model – there are many potential routes to take – basic display/interruptive advertising, VRM, subscription or integration with search to give just four examples – but the commercial model for ensuring the success of the social media space is still unclear. There may be a growing number of social media agencies in the space, but until they offer real, workable proposals for a) monetizing the current user base and b) attracting a mass audience, the prospects for mainstream success remain limited. It is therefore in their interests to do this, otherwise they will remain a niche proposition at threat from integrated campaigns from digital agencies, not to mention full service agencies.

Conclusion

Will social media become mass? Ultimately, I think so.But not in its current guise.

Social media is currently geared towards the technologically savvy. This is fine. But if the platform wishes to mature, then it is necessary to change.

The focus needs to move away from the exploration of something new towards the benefits people receive. This is achieved through highlighting the gains – information and entertainment – and the savings – in time, effort and money. Running alongside this is the need to identify and promote a sustainable commercial model – not an easy task.

Yet, to revisit Rogers’ model, an individual needs to trial something before they can fully adopt it. While social networks are free to join, the registration page still represents a barrier. Keeping most of the functionality behind the log-in is analogous to a paywall. It is hidden away. It is exclusive to users.

This isn’t a trait of a mass media. Social media needs to evolve further before it can be considered one.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ejpphoto/2633923684/

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Twitter, unlike Facebook, is socially mobile

The reciprocity of relationships is, in my opinion, the most fundamental difference between Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, both sides need to agree before the connection is made. On Twitter, people can follow whoever they like.

Does this make Twitter more “social”? I think it might.

I’m writing in broad terms, since different people use the services in different ways, but this makes Twitter aspirational. The more socially mobile, to reuse the pun from my title.

Facebook is who you know. Twitter is who you want to know.

Facebook reinforces social conventions. Twitter does not.

Facebook maintains the status quo. Twitter breaks it.

Facebook is about the past. Twitter is about the future.

Facebook is a constant reminder of our past actions and relationships. Nostalgic of both the recent and distant past.As Don Draper points out in this scene (embedding is disabled, but I’d recommend watching or rewatching it), nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound”. This is powerful, but also static.

It is about who we know and what we did.

The good moments but also the bad.

The people we’re glad we’ve stayed in touch with, but also those we’d rather keep in our past.

Yet the social pressure is there to accept these reconnections and intermingle the different worlds and circles of our past (I’m sure Don wouldn’t appreciate that). These relationships are hugely powerful, but they’re not the whole story.

Twitter is about the future. It is social networking in terms of forging new connections, rather than maintaining old ones.

We seek out people who we perceive to have similar interests or ideas to our own.

We recommend people to one another.

We follow macro and micro celebrities, whether to vicariously bask in the reflected glow or to learn from them.

Whatever our motivations, we are able to do this. There is no requirement to justify the people we follow. Likewise, there is no pressure to reciprocate when an individual (Or organisation. Or bot) follows us.

This fluidity of Twitter is a major advantage it has over Facebook. And if Facebook is seeking to keep more of our browsing behaviour within its network, it is something it needs to address.

It’s not just about who we are. It’s also about where we want to be.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eyermonkey/2842941601/

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Should we listen to every conversation?

Over on the Essential Research blog, I have responded to a post by a social media conversation monitor who eulogised the death of focus groups.

In that post, I have outlined why focus groups themselves aren’t the issue; rather it is shoddy application. Here, I want to expand on that a bit. It is my contention that conversation monitoring is more flawed than traditional research, and should not be used for major corporate decision.

Alan Partridge once declared himself to be a homosceptic, and in a not dissimilar way I am doubtful of the efficacy of social media monitoring.

In terms of numbers signing up, the social space is still increasing. However, the number of active users within this universe will remain limited – the late arrivals will be the more passive and occasional users. This space is increasingly asymmetric, with network effects and power laws distorting the flow of information.

Topics of conversation will by nature revolve around the major players – whether individuals, blogs or organisations. The larger the hub, the weaker the concentration of signal to noise.

As a small example, consider blog commenting. Aside from the odd spam comment, the contributions I get here are all genuinely helpful. Because this is a relatively small blog, there are few people commenting out of self-interest. Moving to the larger sites, comments are filled with spam, self-promotion and unquestioning advocacy/contrariness. Genuine debate and discussion still exists, but it is diluted by the inanity surrounding it. This on its own creates difficulties for sentiment analysis, but clever filters can overcome this.

But despite the internet being open, we will cluster around likeminds. Group think creates an echo chamber. danah boyd has pointed out that teenagers network with pre-existing friends. It is my observation that the majority of adults network with those in their pre-existing spheres. Planners chat to planners. Cyclists to cyclists. Artists to artists. Mothers to Mothers. These categories aren’t mutually exclusive, but the crossover is minimal compared to likeminds.

Remember the Motrin outrage? The mainstream majority remain blissfully ignorant. This may have been because it was resolved before it had a chance to escalate to the mainstream media, but it nevertheless shows the limited nature of social media echos.

Of course, some products or services target the early adopting, tech savvy ubergeeks and so for these companies they should obviously engage where their audience is.

But for the rest? Despite my assertions above, I do view monitoring as useful, but only as a secondary tool. Tracking conversations as they happen is a useful feedback mechanism, but few companies are going to be nimble enough to implement it immediately (once they have separated the meat from the gristle and verified that this opinion is indeed consensus).

Surveys and groups are indeed limited by taking place in a single point in time, and through these it is difficult to extrapolate long-term reaction. The Pepsi taste test being one notorious example.

But there are plenty of longitudinal research methodologies that are suitable. Long-term ethnographic or observational studies can track whether attitudes or behaviour do in fact change over time. These can be isolated in pilots or test cases, so that any negative feedback can be ironed out before the product or service is unleashed to the general public.

This is where traditional research still prevails: the controlled environment. Artificiality can be a benefit if it means shielding a consumer basis from something wildly different from what they are used to.

This takes time though, and some companies may prefer to iterate as they go, and “work in beta”. Facebook is an example of this – they have encountered hostility over news feeds, Beacon, redesigns and terms of service.Each time, they have ridden the storm and come back stronger than ever.

Is this a case study for conversation monitoring effectiveness? Not really. They listened to feedback, but only implemented it when it didn’t affect their core strategy. So, the terms of service changed back but the news feed and redesign stayed. Features intrinsic to its success.

Should Scyfy have gone back to being the Sci-Fi channel due to the initial outrage? Perhaps. Personally, I think it is a rather silly name but it didn’t do Dave any harm. If they have done their research properly, they should remain confident in their decision.

Conversation monitoring can be useful, but it should remain a secondary activity. A tiny minority have a disproportionately loud voice, and their opinions shouldn’t be taken as representative of the majority. When iterating in public, there is a difficult balance between reacting too early to an unrepresentative coalition, and acting too late and causing negative reaction among a majority of users/customers.

Because of this, major decisions should be taken before going to market. Tiny iterations can be implemented after public feedback, but the core strategy should remain sound and untouched.Focus groups and other research methodologies still have an important place in formulating strategy.

sk

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