Saturday, 13 September 2008


I am a member of the Internet Advertising Bureau's recently established Social Media Council, and thought I'd share a draft of a piece I have written for their soon to be published Social Media Handbook. All feedback appreciated.

Two new forces changing the web

There is fossil evidence that suggests the use of tools has been central to human evolution. Tools help us both consume and produce more. The more advanced our tools the more productive we are and the more indulgent we can be to ourselves. The World Wide Web is perhaps our most advanced tool yet, and is still evolving. The next few years promises to usher in a new phase of change, driven by the emergence and blending of two new sets of tools – the notion of the branded utility, and the use of social media. Both promise to revolutionise the web and the way brands and consumers interact.

Applications in The Cloud

We no longer need buy shrink-wrapped software from giants like Microsoft, but can now instead use them free over the web in exchange for having advertising presented to us on that page. The advances in web technology mean that the differences between a web page and a software application have become blurred. These applications vary from accountancy software, to email systems like Hotmail, through to maps, and Google Doc’s word processor and spreadsheet applications. They are centrally stored in a place that is now being called the Cloud, and can be accessed from anywhere. Thousands of the new applications are being created by firms, such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook that are aiming to profit from the Cloud, through the selling of advertising.

The age of conversations

Brands are now trying to catch up with this new world. We’ve moved from a web where you only read from it, to a web that you can also write onto. This has launched us into an age of conversations, where brands and consumers are talking, and consumers and consumers are talking in communities. The bar has been raised, and old school approaches based on messages are being replaced by brands focusing on helping by creating applications that are both useful and/or entertaining to their audiences. This is the idea of the branded utility. This move is necessitated by the need to standout in a world full of the noisy sound of conversations, where there are billions of web pages indexed on Google, and Technorati tracking 112.8 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of tagged social media.

From Head to Hand

Brands are also increasingly creating applications for the Cloud in an attempt to cut-through the clutter and competition on the web, setting out to develop advertising so good, it is a service. The age of conversations moves the focus of brands from the head to the hand, from messages to experiences. Experiences created through branded applications that demonstrate the brand, or enable the customer.

An iconic recent example is the Nike+IPod Sports Kit that allows you to set up music playlists for your running, track your runs, and is fully integrated into a Nike+ website where you can connect with others in a community, analyse your runs, and do much more. There is also the New York City Department of Education ‘Million’ project, which is an interactive rewards program that gives free mobile phones to students who then have to earn free talk time and text-messaging rewards through measured performance in school attendance, behaviour, classroom participation, homework and grades.

Droga5’s Million mobile

Shock news: Being useful is not new

Of course, being useful is not really a new thing, we are returning to the smart things we did before the broadcast age. We’ve kind of gone full circle. Consider Guinness who according to Wikipedia commissioned Norris and Ross McWhirter, who had been running a fact-finding agency to compile what became The Guinness Book of Records in August 1954. One thousand copies were printed and given away.

Alternatively consider Michelin, who according to Wikipedia, published the first edition of a guide to France in 1900, to help drivers maintain their cars, find decent lodging, and eat well while touring. This Michelin example is particularly striking when you think of Michelin Stars being the most coveted award in dining from a tyre manufacturer.

The next stage in branded utility, the social utility

The emergence of branded utilities has dovetailed with the emergence of social media, and the two are now blending to create new, even more powerful tools. What has changed with the advent of social media is the ability to harness the power of communities, and thus collective intelligence and resources. This is the notion of the social utility, which is what Facebook calls itself. Facebook’s applications and groups are examples of tools that harness the power of the community to create tools and services. Its applications, in most cases, are only really possible when you have a community of people sharing and contributing.

For me one of the best examples of a branded social utility is still Amazon, and although it would not see itself in this way, it continues through its user reviews and ratings to build community, and uses this to create tools that are useful and helpful. User reviews and ratings are partly about teaching Amazon what you like, but the reviews are a form of indirect reciprocity, which evolutionary psychologists would say is an investment into the community, done to build reputation, self-esteem and status, and getting something back in the future. Its user reviews and ratings have also now become a platform for services, such as Pluribo, which is a Firefox extension that automatically codes and summaries the user reviews on any given Amazon page, saving you the hassle of reading through the endless lists. This has been the secret to its success. And it continues to innovate with its collaborative filtering technology with innovations like ‘Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed’.

In Conclusion

Brands from all sectors can engage the social media consumer, and build branded utilities to help them differentiate their brands. It requires a different mindset from traditional broadcast messaging, and a willingness to open up to the collaborative economy, and start to accept user reviews, ratings, and other forms of user generated content. This means bringing down the walls between the organisation and audience, and making them partners, co-creators, and most importantly, genuinely trying to help them by offering tools, widgets, and applications. Being helpful is the most customer-centric thing you can do right now. It’s as simple as that. Thus one of the first tools man ever learnt to use is the now the hottest tool in digital communications

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