Sunday, November 21, 2010

The right messages?

Facebook announced a refresh of their messaging product this week that it was suggested (especially before the announcement) would turn into an email killer.

Having watched the Facebook event video and Mark Zuckerberg’s couch session from the Web 2.0 summit that followed the announcement, it’s made me wonder whether this is the right context to try and frame the new messages product into – as an alternative to email. I think a lot of the commentary has missed what he’s described messages to be.

It is centred around Facebook’s idea of email if it were designed in the social era. They take a look at email as one part of a mix of communications tools and suggest that all we’re actually interested in doing when we send email is communicating with our friends, and that a lot of the other email we receive is less important and therefore needs less of our attention. They also suggest that now we have so many different ways of communicating with our friends, we should communicate across whatever medium is most convenient for us, without it impacting on the receiver.

Their solution is to integrate our main communication tools (email, SMS, instant messaging) into one platform, so that our communications with the same person can be viewed as a continuous flowing conversation irrespective of the channel. And as they have list of all our friends (the social graph or the friend list to me and you), they have the means to do this for us.

The logic is sound but Google Wave was also broadly described as what email would be like if it were designed today and that has been consigned to the scrapheap. An earlier blog post of mine discussed this issue in more detail but in summary I think Google Wave would have had a better chance of surviving if it integrated Gmail (and email in general) into it so our old email habits could work with their new idea.

Facebook have done this by including email as part of the mix of tools that the new messages platform will aggregate. They have done what Google didn’t do with Wave, so in theory it should do what Wave wanted to do and replace email, correct?

Well not necessarily.

Wave tried to re-design email but also added something to it – the real time, conversational aspect. They offered us in line replies, allowed us to have group conversations as well as private conversations within a large group and share documents/media. If you look at the technology it was very clever. It could even be argued that it was too clever and too far ahead of the average user’s requirements.

Facebook messages is a lot more lowest common denominator in terms of its use cases and appeals to the masses (we all use Facebook already after all) but has it actually added anything new? All it’s done is taken our existing conversations and archived them together in one place.

It’s the communications equivalent of housekeeping. It’s a very clever (and useful) filtering algorithm using a sophisticated database but It’s no different in principle to Gmail’s priority inbox function, or a well developed set of email filters. Admittedly it already has the filters developed thanks to the friend list we have on Facebook but it’s not difficult to imagine any other email filtering system or programme getting up to speed pretty quickly.

My other gripe with this idea of Facebook messages replacing email is how reliant we are on email without realising. It’s our primary method of communication with the world outside of our friends. Clients, customers, colleagues…everyone. Not only is it a communication tool, but it is an identity tool. I would argue that 99% of websites requiring a login use email. Either directly as a username or as a means to acquire a username. Even Facebook itself needs your email address to log in to it. Am I really going to go round the internet changing this? No chance.

Facebook’s connect technology that allows you to log in to websites using your Facebook login could solve this, but if you extrapolate this then you, as a user, are using Facebook for pretty much everything you do online. Having such a dependency on one platform, whether it’s Facebook or not, is scary.

In essence, I don’t see how Facebook offering us a place to put all our conversations together will necessarily cause us to abandon any of the tools we use. We’ll still use SMS, we’ll still use email, we’ll still IM. We may do it from one place online, but we’ll still be doing it.

And don’t forget we still need non data dependent platforms to communicate. I may not always have a data connection near me at which point relying on a data service for my communications is a bit useless. And that’s before you consider the people who don’t have smartphones.

Facebook messages will aid communication. It will organise and archive messages. It will be a layer on top of our existing communications. But I just can’t see it killing email in the way commentators are suggesting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sell the network, not the product

I’m doing some social media work within the recruitment industry at the moment, and it’s interesting hearing some of the viewpoints about how best to implement it. Fortunately for me the company I work for are very understanding about how it can and should be used to good effect, but that’s not the case universally. Then I came across an article that both surprised and wound me up, so I had to comment on it. I should have known better.

The article was about the recruitment industry but it could easily be applied to any industry. It was about how recruiters were trying to use professional networks to find candidates for jobs, and since they were having trouble finding a direct return on investment to warrant the use of social media, they were thinking twice. It was so wrong. It was all focused on generating quantifiable sales, immediately.

Considering LinkedIn and wider professional social networking tools in this way misses their fundamental point. It should be about discovering an audience, being part of a community and communicating with them. Large brands and celebrities have pulling power and are able to define and develop their own audience and communities around themselves but for SME’s listening and discovering what communities already exist needs to come first. BEFORE the business gets involved. This is key. The social networker who creates their profile and starts pushing messages (either sales messages or otherwise) without discovering what audience already exists and what they’re talking about is almost certain to fail.

In looking for return on investment by measuring the number of clients secured these companies are measuring the wrong metric. They are not looking for a return in the right place. These tools are not recruitment tools or sales tools, they are networking tools and need to be measured as such. When a company hosts or attends an offline networking event, how do they judge the effectiveness of going? By analysing the opportunity to meet with clients, raise their profile in the sector and learn from others. Correct?

So why is online networking measured differently?

The return from online networking needs to be measured in terms of how much of an online network it builds up for individuals/companies, how effectively it allows you to communicate with people you normally don’t have the time/opportunity to reach regularly, how much online coverage it can generate and how much it promotes you or your company as a brand. Now if you engage in online ADVERTISING through social networks, then by all means look at direct sales as your measurement metric. But not if you’re networking. At least not initially. It's true that professional networking will ultimately lead to sales, but this is likely to happen through the relationships you develop.

If your LinkedIn profile is the first result on Google when people search for your name is that not powerful? Is that not a return? Does that not promote you and consequently the brand or company you work for?

Those still stuck in the mindset where every action must have a direct, monetary value need to get out of it. An appreciation of qualitative results needs to come in to business alongside quantitative analysis. I’m not suggesting professional networking be entered into with no idea of what it could bring. Of course not. Nor am I suggesting that a return need not be measured.

But measure the right things, and do it for the right reasons. If you’re networking, actually network. Don’t just sell. Build relationships.

The original article appears here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Places to be

So Facebook, who a few months ago dipped their toes into the geo-location waters, this week leapt into them with a full on running jump. In announcing the next stage of development of Facebook Places to include Deals and a simple, cost effective way to monetise a user’s geographical check ins they have shown us what their vision geo-social networking is.

Whereas the 5 million or so geo-location early adopters on Foursquare, Gowalla, Yelp etc. have been happy to use it for the game element of getting badges and the enjoyment of seeing where their friends were, there was always the feeling of “it’s cool, clever and fun, but how can it grow/spread?”. I’ve had this discussion with a number of people, and this was always the underlying question.

Well this announcement has shown one way of making it happen.

The idea is simple. Owners of venues encourage footfall and offline traffic by offering deals/incentives to their Facebook fans who check in. For example Gap in the US have offered the first 10,000 customers who check in on Facebook with 3 of their friends free jeans, and 40% off for people who couldn’t make it in the first 10,000. Simple idea to get them in and sell them your products.

The technology is not new but in terms of taking it to the masses it is. Foursquare specials have done the exact same thing for a while but with the idea now exposed to a wider network of businesses that want to take advantage of it, it gives them an easy way of offering their customers rewards. The scale of the Facebook community (500m users, around 7% of the world population) cannot be ignored.

Where does this leave us and the competition?

Part of Facebook’s announcement concerned the read and write API, allowing developers to access user check-ins and feed back to them. This could hold the key to whether the competition sink or swim. Facebook’s scale makes it a big player, and if users adopt the deal model, then the Foursquares, Gowalla’s and Yelps of the world will need to somehow integrate into it. Can the coolness of the foursquare badge collection be sustained long term and will businesses think they’re as cool as users do and pay to sustain them as an independent model? Not so sure.

And how are the users going to adopt it? My Facebook news feed is quite random when it comes to Places. I have over the average number of Facebook friends (which apparently is 160) who seem to check-in quite randomly and in bursts, whereas my Foursquare friends check in pretty much everywhere they go. Train stations, stores, bars, clubs, at the gym, at home. I don’t mind that because that’s all it’s for so I accept it, but I don’t want my Facebook news feed clogged up with almost 300 people checking in to everywhere they’re going. It’ll be Farmville/Mafia/Vampire spam 2.0.

I’m genuinely intrigued by this, and I think the simplicity of it will facilitate businesses both large and small in being able to adopt the technology. When I watched the social network film recently, it put back into focus the simplicity of the idea behind social networks: getting friends together and letting them do what they do, online. They talk to one another about what they’re doing, talk about parties and events they’re going to and look at eachother’s photos – now they do it all online. This Places development takes that offline to online link and brings it back round to the real world again. It could be big.

What are your thoughts, will you now be using Places and do you think it’ll work?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Striking the right note

Why has no one figured out how to “do” music social networking?

It’s an open question, but one I feel is legitimate to ask. To clarify, I don’t actually know why myself. I can offer thoughts in the hope to maybe generate a bit of discussion around what is ultimately my favourite topic of conversation, but I would be sitting with a few intern developers in Silicon Valley if I had all the answers!

At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge what’s out there already. Obviously there’s mySpace, and whilst it was certainly one of the first it died a death for a few years lost in a deluge of spam, an inability to define itself and a desire to become too many things to too many people. YouTube is another obvious example, but is it really a music social network? For sure it’s great for sharing all types of video content of which music is a part, but as anyone who has tried to follow a comments thread on a YouTube video will know, discussion/conversation is impossible.

There are younger pretenders to the throne - Ping!, mflow, we7 & LastFM spring to mind. Each doing their own thing but I don’t think any can claim to have really cracked it universally for various reasons particular to each platform. Spotify is good and their last major update integrated facebook and twitter into their platform, but to really take advantage of the best features (Spotify mobile, ad free music etc), you have to subscribe to Spotify premium. Paying to socially network doesn’t seem right. And there is still very little opportunity for fans to network with artists AND eachother. Surely that’s the basis of social networking?

So I ask the question again, why is it proving so hard to crack? Here are a few of my thoughts and ramblings on the why and the what:

1.    Copyright & content

The biggie in my opinion. The music industry’s (legitimate) battle to preserve the artistic interests of their members and stem the flow of illegal (mainly in digital form) copies of music is at odds with the free sharing of information that is one of the pillars of social networking. The successful music social network site/platform will need to juxtapose the two.

2.    Concept

Well maybe we’re thinking about it all wrong? The assumption is that a music social network has to be where we listen to music. Maybe all we want is a place to talk about it? Maybe a place where artists and fans get together and discuss music is all a music social network needs to be?

3.    Implementation

This follows the concept. Once that has been agreed, what’s the right way of doing it? Is there even a right way? In Ping! Apple have put the onus on the artists to share new content and have users discuss this content rather than share their own content, whereas on the opposite side mySpace is all about member generated and shared content.

And have music fans even decided what they want? Because at the moment, they seem happy to have both.

4.    Social network overload

Yet another social network? Another group of friends/contacts to build up and a new community to develop? Another “thing” to check online? This was one of the complaints with Google Buzz; how it never integrated into email. As time goes on and our social networking behaviour becomes more mature and polarised towards what we already use it’s going to be difficult to make time for another social network. Even one that relates to what for some people is such an important aspect of their lives. Spotify’s integration and importing of friends from Facebook HAS to be the way forward on this…

5.    Monetization

Oh it’s that ugly idea again - how do we make money out of it? Ads? On a web platform it’s easy - stick a column of ads down the side of the page. Done. But splitting an album up with a few ad breaks when you’re caught in the magic of Led Zep, Pink Floyd or Dire Straits isn’t good. So do you then create the network, get the users in and run it at a loss whilst it defines itself and only then aggressively chase the $ (twitter)?

Maybe the press/newspaper industry offers a few pointers. The value of their industry has shrunk dramatically over the last few years as content is freely available on the web (Times & Murdoch group excepted). The public now consume news online and don’t need to buy a paper to read it. Industry insiders have had to accept their sector has reduced in value and as hard as it may be for the music industry to accept this, do they now have to?

So where to from here?

Honestly, I don’t think anyone knows. For now, we all carry on as we were. We join the new networks that start up in the hope the next one may be “the one”. We continue to feel unfulfilled by what’s on offer and a few of us continue to think about how to do it in the hope we may come up with the answer.

Does anyone else think about this? Join me here or say hello on twitter, and let’s talk about it. This could be therapy for frustrated music social networkers!