Saturday, June 14, 2008
Social Media: Trend or Fad?
I sympathize with much of what she had to say. My Facebook site has become cluttered with dozens of widgets, each one requesting or demanding some sort of attention: Someone wrote on my wall; someone is poking me; someone is taking a quiz and wants to compare answers; someone wants me to join a list to save the world (as if joining the list will do so). And over on Twitter, even though I am trying to be selective about who I "Follow," I get so many Tweets that I can't possibly hope to keep up.
Is Social Media this year's Second Life--an online trend that gets hot, peaks with headlines and magazine cover stories, but slowly fades away? To be fair, Second Life hasn't faded away, but neither has it changed the world like some were predicting two years ago. After explosive growth, the vast majority of people who tried Second Life have found better uses for their time. While Second Life usage stats continue to show modest growth, there's ample evidence the virtual world has, at best, niche appeal--of the almost 14 million "residents" claimed by Second Life, only 855,000 have signed on in the past 30 days. Compare this to Facebook's 34 million unique monthly users or MySpace's 44 million.
While many consumers find social media daunting, it should be evident that the need and desire to share, communicate, and connect will only grow. As a result, I believe consumers won't turn away from social media; instead, they'll demand and gravitate to tools that help them adapt and customize social media to their own needs.
In fact, this is already happening. We've seen the way consumers can migrate en masse from one social networking tool to the next. Early social media sites such as Classmates.com, Friendster, and SixDegrees made way for MySpace, which is now losing users to Facebook. Twitter was the first micro-blogging tool to gain critical mass, but others are knocking on Twitter's door. Plurk and Pownce have been gaining some trial from Twitter users exasperated that the service has been down so frequently. Plurk and Pownce are arguably more functional and do a better job of allowing users to track threaded discussions, but neither is yet making much of a dent on Twitter's world domination.
And now Google is threatening to shake up the social media landscape with Friend Connect, it's tool that will permit consumers and site owners to create niche social networks that people can join using a single, portable profile. With this tool, even small sites can offer social media gadgets such as messaging, chat, and product ratings; and consumers can maintain a single profile and friend list, rather than registering and maintaining multiple memberships in dozens of different sites and social networks.
But even if social media remains fractured, consumers will find and use those tools that make it ever more useful. For instance, today fewer than 50% of the Tweets on Twitter are posted by people visiting Twitter.com; instead, consumers are using a plethora of tools to track, manage, and make posts on Twitter. Almost every tool offers some sort of improvement upon Twitter's own Web-based interface. Popular tools include Twhirl, Twitterrific, and Twit. Other applications that use Twitter's API to offer information and functionality include Tweetscan and Summize for searching and Who Should i Follow? to find Twitter users you might like.
A new and growing breed of tool is one that helps you to aggregate your online life in one place. Rather than managing accounts across multiple sites, you can track, review, and engage with sites in one place. A new favorite tool of mine is Digsby, a desktop application that permits users to setup all their email, IM, and social media accounts in one spot. I can check three different email boxes, the latest on my Facebook site, and recent Tweets in one convenient tool. Digsby really has changed my perception of the difficulty and value of participating in the social media phenomenon.
So, if you're one of those folks who signed up for Facebook or Twitter and are having a hard time figuring out what all the fuss is about, remember to keep things in perspective. Early automobiles were horribly dysfunctional things--they were dirty, loud, unreliable, difficult to start, unable to handle the rutty roads, and required gasoline in an age without gas stations. Yet people didn't reject cars and return to their trusty horses; because the human desire for mobility was so innate, automobiles became ever more usable, and within a couple decades horses were being pushed off roadways by cars.
Similarly, the human desire to be connected, to have friends, to communicate, to share, to show off, and to belong are so innate that today's kludgy social media tools will evolve into ever more usable forms. We marketers shouldn't tune out because the 2008 version of social media is imperfect, but we should be part of what makes future versions more usable and valuable for both consumers and for our brands.