Dec 11

How to understand Facebook: Use it.

One of the most common set of questions I’m asked by people trying to understand the rise of the social web, and how it will impact their business is:

Is Facebook a fad? Why do people spend so much time using it?
How does Facebook work? Why are businesses on it?

In almost all cases where these set of questions arise, the person asking me doesn’t really use Facebook. My advice to them is simple. Start using Facebook every day. Look at what people are doing. Think about what they are not doing. Look at what businesses are doing. Look at what they are not doing. Study businesses that have high engagement (look at the ‘people talking about this’ number on their page) and figure out why. Look for patterns across posts that have high engagement.

It always surprises me when I hear from very successful business people who are trying to understand Facebook by reading third party reports about it. You won’t learn much about Facebook by reading NYT or WSJ articles about it.

Same goes for Twitter, Google+, etc. I’m shocked at how many people mention Facebook and Twitter in the same breath as if they are the same. People are using these two platforms in completely different ways. Facebook is for communication with people you know in real life. Twitter is a way to get information about celebrities, sports personalities and news outlets that you care about. The vast majority of active Twitter users have never posted a tweet. The same appears to be true for Google+. It is unlike Facebook or Twitter. The people who are using it, are using it as a way to connect with people they don’t know in real life around niche hobbies, currently skewed heavily towards technology and photography.

It also surprises me when I hear from people building on the Facebook platform who don’t understand how it works. People complain that it changes too often. This is an understandable complaint, but it’s not going to change. This is the world we now live in. The only certainty is that things will continue to change fast.

The only way to understand a new type of media is to spend time embedded in it. Get your hands dirty. The future of your business probably depends on it.

Dec 11

Stop talking about “social”

As I read, watch and listen to other people describe the changes in our industry, I’m consistently seeing two problems:
- Not enough people are recognizing that the web is being fundamentally rebuilt around people, and that this is going to change how all of us do business.
- Too many of the people who are thinking about social, are thinking about it as a distinct entity.

Let me show you an example of each.

I really like A List Apart. But in their reader’s review of 2011, where their readers talked about the biggest changes they saw in 2011, I think they missed the biggest change of all – that the web is being rebuilt around people. They talked about apps, mobile first, emotional design, measurement. But social design was a glaring omission. All designers should be recognizing, and should be on top of, this shift. Yes, “social” has become a buzzword, and there are many charlatans selling themselves as “social media gurus”. But this shift is very, very real.

At Le Web a couple of weeks ago, George Colony, the CEO of Forrester, gave an interesting talk where he described three social thunderstorms. The first and third thunderstorms were interesting – moving from browsers to local apps interacting with the cloud*, and the rise of social design within enterprises. But the second thunderstorm is where George missed the same shift as the readers of A List Apart.

George misunderstands the shift with the social web. He said “social” is:
- Running out of hours: people have a finite amount of time in the day and are already interacting with social applications more than many other activities such as exercising.
- Running out of people: penetration of people interacting with social applications is hitting 80 to 90% so doesn’t have much room to grow.

This analysis makes no sense. Social is not a feature. Social is not an application. Social is a deep human motivation that drives our behaviour almost every second that we’re awake. It doesn’t matter if we’re online or offline, on a browser or using an app. Humans are social creatures. George says 86% of US online consumers are social, and describes a “post-social” world. Again, this makes no sense. 100% of online consumers in every country in the world are social because it’s deep in our DNA to make connections and interact with other people.

The big shift that George is misunderstanding is that the rise of the social web is a structural change being driven by online life catching up with offline life. The winners in this world will be the ones who assume social behaviour in everything they do. It won’t be the ones thinking about social as a feature or product in isolation. The winners will be existing businesses who build on top of social platforms to rethink how their business operates. Here are three recent, and simple, examples:

- When you buy tickets on Ticketmaster you can see whether any of your Facebook friends have bought tickets, and if so, where they are sitting. Simple. Want to spend time together? Sit next to them. Want to do your own thing? Sit far away, or don’t buy a ticket.
- When you book flights on Air France, you can see if any of your Facebook friends are on the same flight and where they are sitting. Same as Ticketmaster – sit close by, or far away.
- When you browse for gifts on Etsy, you can use the things your friends have liked on Facebook to filter your results. Your friend likes Bill Murray? Here are all the products about Bill Murray. This moves the experience from a random and almost limitless set of options, to deep social personalization.

These are three dead simple integrations that substantially improve the core product/service experience. The leading businesses are recognizing that the web is moving away from being centred around content, to being centred around people. That is the biggest social thunderstorm, and all of us are going to have to understand it to succeed. So stop talking about social as a distinct entity. Assume it in everything you do.

*You should watch George’s talk to hear his pitch about the first thunderstorm. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s a fascinating perspective.

Dec 11

We communicate with four, but consume from many more.

When I talk about how how social networks are structured, certain things always resonate with people. One of these is that although the average Facebook user has 130 friends, they only communicate directly with four of those people in any given week. Direct communication includes likes and comments on their posts, posts on their wall, chat conversations, video calls, and private messages.

People I talk to are always surprised at how low the number is – only four people per week, and only six people per month. What’s more, the majority of people in these small groups remains consistent from week to week – for example, our partner, our closest friends and family. Changes in people from week to week is usually posting a like or comment with a much weaker tie, for example seeing someone we went to school with get married, run a marathon, or have a baby.

When telling this story, I usually gloss over an important related fact. Although the average Facebook user is only communicating directly with four of their 130 friends in any given week, they are consuming content from a much larger number of those people. After all, over 50% of active Facebook users come back every day. If you include consuming updates from people as communication, then people are interacting with many more than four, but much of the communication is asymmetrical in nature. I may not communicate directly with you, but I do keep up with what’s going on in your life.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In years gone by, we kept up to date through word of mouth – chatting with people in our town or village as we went about daily life. We spoke to a small number of people regularly, and because approximately 70% of conversations are about other people, we learned a lot about many others through interacting with a few. We gossiped, because gossip helps us understand how others behave, and helps define social norms. Many of the same motivations exist in consumption of others’ updates online.

Dec 11

Forget destinations. Your brand is everywhere and nowhere.

We’ve been conditioned to think about destinations for our marketing activity. Our physical store, our website, our micro-site, our e-commerce site. Many ad dollars are spent on driving traffic to specific destinations, where we’re confronted with a very controlled experience designed to elicit specific reactions and build specific perceptions and associations. This has been especially true on the web, where we advertise on site A to drive traffic to site B, and people are obsessed with measuring clicks.

There is a problem quietly brewing for many marketers who primarily think about destinations, driving traffic, and clicks. Online, destinations with a controlled experience are rapidly declining in importance, and in a few short years, they will have disappeared. This is because the structure of the web is fundamentally changing.

The early web was built around content – many websites of content connected to one another. In this environment, driving traffic as a primary activity made sense. But this is quickly being replaced with a web where content is broken down and aggregated in different ways for different people. It’s a more personalized, and unique experience based on knowing who we are, who our friends are, what our friends have liked, and what they have done. With the emergence of platforms and APIs across the web, content is now being disaggregated, broken down into it’s smallest components, and being reaggregated and reformatted in many other places.

This has two dramatic effects.

The first is that we will all have unique experiences as we traverse the web. This is already true of many socially driven sites today. For example, my Facebook and Twitter experience is very different to yours, because we have different friends and have followed different brands and businesses. This is even true for close friends. I’m continually surprised at how different my wife’s Facebook experience is to mine, even though we share many friends. In the foreseeable future, this will be true of almost any website. I will visit the New York Times site, and you will visit the New York Times site, and at the same time in the same day we will see different news depending on our interests and what our friends have read. I will visit an e-commerce site, and you will visit the same e-commerce site, and we’ll see different recommendations, personalized to us.

The second dramatic effect is that when a web page is served, it will pull in many small components of content from many other sources. Along with pulling in and using our interests and friends’ interests for personalization, it will also pull in actual content from our friends – status updates, likes, comments, tweets, purchases, recommendations, etc. So a significant percentage of the page will consist of aggregated content from multiple external sources.

This means that marketers will need to rethink how they approach content creation and distribution. They will need to understand how content will be broken down from the source and aggregated elsewhere across the web. This means that brands will be everywhere. And they will be nowhere. They will be surfacing on potentially any website, and they will no longer exist as a whole in any place with meaningful traffic – that does not also have aggregated content from elsewhere. As a concrete example, this means that marketers will need to stop thinking about their Facebook page as a destination – a place to drive traffic to, and instead start thinking about it as a platform for publishing – a place to create content that will surface in many places.

In Grouped, I argue that anyone working in marketing or advertising needs to build a base of knowledge in a few new areas. One of those areas is understanding networks, how they are structured and how they work. The profound changes above are the reason why. Is your marketing team learning about networks, disaggregation and network effects?

// This post was inspired by some chats I had last week with Iain Tait of Wieden+Kennedy so thanks to Iain! //

Dec 11

Facebook and one-night stands

Many people ask me for tips on being successful on the Facebook platform. There are many answers to this question, but for the most part, people don’t need tactical tips, they need to change their whole approach.

Over the past 50 years, the advertising industry has taught us to think about campaigns. One off efforts that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The problem is that Facebook doesn’t work that way. Facebook is about relationships. It’s about unending dialogue between you – the brand, and people who are interested in talking to you. You need to approach Facebook like you would a long-term relationship. Facebook is not a one-night stand.

The comparison to real life relationships goes beyond the dating analogy. The one thing I’ve found to help me create successful things on the social web, is to think deeply about offline relationships independent of technology. How people interact socially online is learned from their offline social interactions. Think about how offline relationships work. They are formed from many sequential interactions, most of which are very lightweight. An hour here. An hour there. A beer here. A meal there. Real relationships take time. They take work. At times they take a lot of really hard work just to keep them alive. Facebook is no different. People liking your page is the equivalent of shaking someone’s hand. People are just saying ‘Hi, let’s get to know each other a bit better’. Imagine a sales rep measuring success by how many hands they had shaken.

Think about relationships. Create a plan for Facebook that is measured in years, not weeks or months. This will be hard, because agencies and brands will need to work together in new ways. New types of contracts, new types of engagements without a middle or an end. Be patient. Create the best first date you can, then create the best second, third and fourth dates you can, and take it from there. Have lightweight interactions with people. Be flexible. Be responsive. And stop trying to sleep with your fans on the first night.

Disclaimer: As always, the thoughts here are my own and not those of my employer.