Even at what I consider to be an early stage, social media has penetrated so many niches that it is beginning to feel like, if not an old technology, a mature one. This was brought home to me recently when I realized that we now have technologies leveraging social networking concepts that play both offense and defense.
I was intrigued by two ideas from opposite ends of the spectrum recently. The first, a study by Sector Intelligence on Passenger a company that supports on-line brand communities and the other my own digging into social media monitoring.
Passenger is one of a small handful of companies (Communispace is another) that supports private communities that large companies use to find out what customers really think. The study I saw involves findings from a small survey of 16 Fortune 500 companies using Passenger communities.
Most of the results were not that surprising to someone who has been following this space for a long time. But the findings may shed some important light on how companies can leverage communities in a recession. For example, companies using communities use fewer traditional, and expensive, focus groups and they get richer insight into customer needs. The insights can be translated into products and messaging. None of this is surprising, it’s what Eric von Hippel, the MIT marketing guru, wrote about several years ago.
Here’s the interesting part for me. In a world where it is a lot more expensive to get a new customer than it is to retain an old one communities, done right, give customers a sense of validation, which appears to drive retention and that’s a nugget worth having in a recession.
The other point I can derive from this attention to some long held ideas about community affects operations. I believe we are in an era where operations are becoming more important than product. There are fewer unique products on the market than when innovation rates are higher. At times like these brands become more important because a brand and a customer’s experience with it can be unique even if the product or category isn’t. Communities can tell us a great deal about a customer’s interface with the whole product (brand and company). It’s what used to be called the whole product and it is therefore very important especially in an operations oriented business strategy.
So much for offense what about defense?
We are used to thinking about social media and affiliated technologies as things that can only do good (ok, mostly good, sorry Google) but there is a new side to social media that I had not considered.
I recently started watching a space called social media management that helps companies to track and gather all of the things written and otherwise published about them. The applications involved are straightforward. Various spiders and crawlers can deliver links to blog posts, comments, blogs that aggregate your posts, keywords relate to you or your company and more. There are similar applications that monitor the video social sites like YouTube and Flickr too.
So far so good, I guess. But an issue pops up when you understand that if you can do all this so can your competition. Add to that the idea that modern cell phone cameras make us all ersatz reporters today and the potential for—I won’t call it abuse—redirecting these assets can be huge. With the emergence of sites like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr, just to pick a few, it has become fashionable to post weird photos and clips for the world to see—and the world can see them.
Furthermore, unlike just a few years (months?) ago, the world has remarkable resources for analyzing what comes back from a search. NLP or natural language processing, sentiment analysis and relevance analysis are standard tools that can be used to intuit meaning from something said or left on the Web. To me, it all has a spy vs. spy feel to it. Companies can find out a lot about a competitor simply from monitoring the new job postings left on-line, for instance.
I am trying to figure out what this all means. Social networking may have lost its innocence with this turn of events. I am not naïve enough to believe this sort of thing never happened before—think of how many of us pore over SEC filings and the like. And politicians have always run opposition research. But the pace at which information can be captured, digested and delivered to your screen is breath taking. We’ve come a long way from the days when we used communities for co-creation of value.