• April 27, 2009
  • By Jessica Tsai, Assistant Editor, CRM magazine

Social Media: The Five-Year Forecast

The distinction between traditional and innovative marketing will become significantly more pronounced as the socially driven online communities continue to gain momentum, according to a Forrester Research report released today. "The Future of the Social Web," by Jeremiah Owyang, a Forrester senior analyst, examines the monumental changes that have shaped -- and will continue to impact -- how consumers engage with each other. That engagement, Owyang writes, will affect the way each company reaches its customers -- and more important, their influencers.

"The community will take charge," Owyang tells CRM magazine in a one-on-one interview, "and that's going to happen whether or not marketers or brands participate." Social networking, he adds, will only continue to facilitate the power shift toward the consumer.

The report breaks down the past, present, and future state of the social Web into five overlapping eras:

  1. The era of social relationships: Beginning in the mid-1990s, people signed up for online profiles and connected with their friends to share information.
  2. The era of social functionality: As it exists today, social networking is more than just a platform for "friending," but one that can support a broader array of what Owyang calls "social interactive applications." However, identities are essentially disconnected silos within individual sites.
  3. The era of social colonization: By late 2009, technologies such as OpenID and Facebook Connect will begin to break down the barriers of social networks and allow individuals to integrate their social connections as part of their online experience, blurring the lines between networks and traditional sites.
  4. The era of social context: In 2010, sites will begin to recognize personal identities and social relationships to deliver customized online experiences. Social networks will become the "base of operation for everyone's online experiences."
  5. The era of social commerce: In approximately two years, social networks will be more powerful than corporate Web sites and CRM systems, as individual identities and relationships are built on this platform. Brands will serve community interests and grow based on community advocacy as users continue to drive innovation in this direction.

Chart from "The Future of the Social Web," by Jeremiah Owyang, Forrester Research: The Evolution of the Social Web Affects Consumers, Brands, and Social Networks

After interviewing 24 companies (e.g., Dell, Facebook, Google) for this report, Owyang says that not a single chief executive officer or product manager he spoke to could confidently predict what the social Web would look like in five years. It's not surprising, he says, given how fast the landscape has already changed in the last year alone. Slow to gain momentum, social networking has increased dramatically in recent years and Owyang sees it continuing along a "hockey-[stick]" growth rate. "Innovation is matching adoption," he says, "and it's going to happen very rapidly in the next few years."

For as long as marketing has championed a "customer knows best" idealism, it has never truly been a reality until the social Web gained traction. "Customers trust each other more than [they trust] anybody else," Owyang says. Because of peer-to-peer trust, it's critical that, as marketers promote their products or services, the focus is on community and the advocates within each community. Doing so, Owyang says, will be "the only way a brand can scale."

Trust, however, will have to be built amid an atmosphere rife with consumer skepticism. Today, bloggers and brand advocates are generally expected to make clear whether they're being paid or sponsored by the brands they're writing about. (Forrester calls the practice "sponsored conversations.") The line gets blurred once brands reach out to influencers, offering perks such as discounts or rewards. Regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission, will have the responsibility of standardizing legal guidelines around what's acceptable in the realm of social media marketing.

As adoption of tools such as OpenID and Facebook Connect increases, Owyang says that registration forms as we currently know them will become antiquated. Standardized consumer information will be stored in each individual's social network identity. Gaining access to this information, he says, will allow marketers to create highly relevant experiences and -- in a radical departure from the CRM dynamic that prevailed in the past -- the consumer is now in control.

In this dynamic environment, marketers will need to rely on emerging and yet-to-be-developed means of acquiring leads and measuring campaign success. The future value of a Web-site visitor, according to Owyang's report, will likely depend on how that visitor is rated and ranked by the company, based on the "social context" that consumer was willing to share. The report delineates five relevant contexts:

  • Community context: affiliation with those who share similar interests.
  • Location-based context: mobile or consumer-specified location and time.
  • Social context: influence from trusted peers.
  • Behavioral context: consumer actions on the Web or network.
  • Preferences context: what consumers say they want.

CRM solution providers such as SAP and Salesforce.com are quickly adapting to the demand for social relevance, the report says, by partnering with social-networking vendors and integrating application programming interfaces (APIs) that tap into public social data, such as Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles. Wherever possible, Owyang observes, vendors are working to establish "connective tissues" with communities. The networks themselves have the potential to transform into CRM systems. "They have the relationships -- people connecting to each other -- even sales and brands," Owyang says. "The piece missing is management. That's what's going to come next." Should Twitter, for example, offer tools for analytics and lead generation, the microblogging service could very well solve its quest for monetization, Owyang says. (The analyst posts to Twitter under the handle @jowyang.)

Younger generations that grew up with social networking (particularly Generation Y) will certainly lead the way to push adoption, Owyang says, but as this population enters the work force, its openness to share will likely begin to establish new boundaries. Filtering will become necessary, he predicts, as social norms persist, particularly in professional circumstances. Because of this, Owyang expects that there will still be two limitations hindering the future of a single online identity:

  1. Just as people have multiple email accounts for various reasons, people will have multiple accounts online; and
  2. although each individual Web user may represent a single persona, people prefer to differentiate the between the facets (e.g., work, friends, family) that make up that persona.

Going forward, Owyang recognizes a great deal of risk remains to be addressed, particularly with regard to privacy concerns. Out of necessity, he says, stricter security measures will be put into place, but, even so, "user information will get accidentally or purposely spread."

Owyang's pragmatism, in fact, begins to sound like something very much resembling resignation: "Bad things will happen," Owyang says. "Expect social networks, companies and consumers to all mess up when it comes to the privacy aspect." Consumers in general will not be any less forgiving, but experienced users of social media may see privacy slip-ups as an inevitable byproduct as channels standardize and become more mature.

As a counterbalance, the report foresees a time when the delivery of relevant content will be based solely on a customer's network identity rather than requiring that the visitor locate the content herself by navigating through a Web site.

Owyang says that social networks will likely be much quicker to adopt this model than individual brands will. Eventually, he says, brands should create a strategy in which corporate sites are "fragmented":

  • Sites themselves will become less relevant as brands deliver content based on social network identities instead of requiring consumers to surf and search.
  • Social networks will no longer be destinations as much as they will be "aggregations" of communities unattached to individual sites.
  • The successful brands, Owyang says, will be the ones that "let the most popular content spread to the community and the customer[s] where they exist."

[Editors' Note: The executive summary of Jeremiah Owyang's report can be found here. An excerpt of his report appears as the column The Tipping Point in CRM magazine's June 2009 special issue on social media and CRM.]

News relevant to the customer relationship management industry is posted several times a day on destinationCRM.com, in addition to the news section Insight that appears every month in the pages of CRM magazine. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top; to contact the editors, please email editor@destinationCRM.com.

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