The 5 Phases of Social Experience

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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.

The social experience is disjointed because consumers have separate identities in each social network. But social is about to evolve into a simple set of technologies that enable a portable identity, empowering a consumer to maintain her identity and making any Web experience and many in-store experiences a social event. This will radically change how we know business. This social experience will see five eras:

  1. Era of Social Relationships: We’ve already reached maturity with this stage. It took off in the 1990s with people connected to each other using simple profiles and “friending” features to share information, discussions, and media. It is the foundation of the changes to come.
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  2. Era of Social Functionality: Although not yet mature, we entered this phase in 2007. Today’s social networks have evolved into platforms that support social interactive applications and provide new meaning and utility to communities. Most of these applications appear to be disposable, and we’ve yet to tap into the true business functionality of applications such as e-commerce and workplace productivity. Even when maturity arises with this era, consumers will share their experiences but won’t connect them across networks. Among U.S. consumers who visit MySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn at least monthly, 42 percent juggle at least two social network IDs. And 63 percent are also in discussion forums with yet another ID. This creates friction for consumers who must manage multiplying personal information and username/password combinations. It’s hard to keep track of connections when your contacts may be in Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Ning, Twitter, or a hundred other places.
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  3. Era of Social Colonization: Technologies like OpenID will let individuals traverse the Internet with their social connections along for the ride. The boundaries of social networks and traditional sites will blur, making every site a social experience—even if they don’t choose to participate. New browsers and identity technologies will let consumers choose to surf the Web and see what sites their friends have visited—and what they thought of the information there. Because they trust friends more than they trust companies, they’ll lean on their network to make decisions about what they’re reading and buying. To add value, social networks will aggregate members’ activities and those of their network, collected on the members’ profile pages, merging these into messaging systems and newsfeeds. Users will not only control their communications with other sites, but also see what their friends are doing on the open Web.
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  4. Era of Social Context: As sites begin to recognize people’s personal identities and their social relationships, they will customize experiences based on visitors’ preferences, behaviors, and friends. This stage will enable more-intense social applications, allowing social networks to absorb features of email and to become a base of operations for everyone’s online experiences. Consumers will opt in to share this information—about friends, preferences, demographics, and history—with online communities and other sites in exchange for a more-relevant Web experience. This will build bridges between social networks, sites, and any other medium that can connect with these identification tools.

  5. Era of Social Commerce: As social networks become the repository for identities and relationships, they’ll become more powerful than corporate Web sites and CRM systems. Communities will be the driving force for innovation. Because of this, brands will cater to communities, resulting in a power shift toward the connected customer. Versatile IDs will blend social sites and the Web into a single common experience. Users will control their identities and what they choose to expose. They’ll use collaboration tools to define how they want brands to serve them, and a suite of community tools to manage companies.

The power will shift to communities within social networks, and brands that don’t keep up by catering to the needs of those communities will lose market share.

[Editors' Note: This column is an edited excerpt from Jeremiah Owyang's report, "The Future of the Social Web." News coverage of the report appeared on destinationCRM.com in late April, including another of the report's charts. Furthermore, the five eras described by Owyang have been included in CRM magazine's Social Media Maturity Model, featured in the June 2009 special issue on social media. The Social Media Maturity Model — which you can access here — is the basis of CRM's #303030 Project of 30 Posts, 30 People, 30 Days, in which the industry's top thinkers are spending the month discussing, dissecting, and developing the Model.]

Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang on Twitter) is a senior analyst at Forrester Research serving interactive marketing professionals. He is a leading thinker on social technologies, Web marketing, and interactive marketing.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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