Thursday, 22 December 2011

What is the Social Media Agenda?

It isn't normally an acid test for a business to ask that if it failed to survive from tomorrow would we miss it. But you could easily ask that question when applied to say the Royal Mail whose collapse would have a very large effect if it shut down tomorrow as post and parcels may not get delivered before Christmas, as an example.

It's perhaps more applicable to ask the question when the company offers its service free of charge, like Twitter.

Yesterday I asked if social media and networking had actually down anything for us. I don't think anyone would disagree that the new medium has helped change the way many of us communicate and therefore it has done something for us. But if a substantial part of social media was to change, not exist or become chargeable as of tomorrow morning, would we actually miss it?

Let's ask that question of Twitter. Why Twitter? because it is the most ingeniously simple of all the social media ideas. In just 140 characters you have to say something that you hope many people will read as something of value. Well I follow some 180 people and I can honestly say that I would value around 1% of what they say. I set aside Cricket Commentator David Lloyd whose list of Christmas presents for his 'Nest of Vipers' was hilarious and Shane Warne's public and sugary growing love story with his fiancé Elizabeth Hurley - they have been intriguing in different ways. Why? Because they are stories 'at source'. They are not newspaper articles or people surmising, they are the individuals saying real things.

But if Twitter died tomorrow, I can honestly say nothing would change of any consequence in my life - my business would carry on, life would carry on. Like the loss of a favourite TV channel, that would be that.

I would say Twitter has that odd feel about it as a business. So much might possibly be done by it but its fragile mechanism and attraction depends almost solely on the users' love affair with chuntering out any old 140 characters regularly unimpeded, unregulated and free from bombardment by advertisers. Mess with any of that equation and you suddenly have the whole lot falling down.

Twitter had further inward investment of some $300m from a Saudi Prince recently. There is no shortage of cash for investment and clearly all the investors see the potential return. Or do they? Is this the rich people's equivalent of putting $300m on the nose of some nag in the 5.30 at Kempton Park? Or have they seen the way that a 100m users will suddenly realise $billions of revenue every year?

If that medium is missable from tomorrow, then you would have to question investors' sanity. Clearly, with that kind of inbound investment money, Twitter is sticking around for a while yet. But the clock is ticking and pay back will be required some day soon. 

I think there is a huge danger in believing that just by attracting a large following that you can suddenly monetize it. Business models are key here but the bit that really worries me is the honesty with the users. If Twitter never proposes to charge users any money then realistically all they are is a database company who will rent out the 'space' each user occupies to the highest bidders to attract those users to spend some money on products or services. Twitter and Facebook, in that sense are glorified TV channels with the IP addresses of all the users which is pretty good knowledge.

That makes them the ad man's dream. If that is the case, shouldn't the users know that some day they will get bombarded with adverts, time and again with ever more personalised content to stimulate us buying? 

The Real Future of Social Media

Some years ago, I went to a presentation on the future by an entrepreneur who had invested in several internet companies every one of which I can say have failed. However, he did foresee that there would come a time when every advertiser on the planet will no longer work on house addresses or hit and hope on TV adverts, they will send personalised adverts into your private space on the internet with full knowledge of your buying habits, the credit cards you use, how much credit you have, what sex, age and dimensions you were, where you shopped, what you did on holiday, where your holiday snaps are, what you do for a living, what private habits you have, who your family were and what you were doing at any exact time. The murmur at the interval was that man was talking rubbish.

If anyone wanted to know all about any one of us, all that information is largely available from many sources on the web. A great deal of it is now held on Facebook and other social media sites. We have surrendered potentially valuable personal details of all sorts onto the web and there is very little left for people to know. The race is on to consolidate that information and monetize it.

Make no bones about it, the business model of every social media company is to whore its user base as long as we don't pay. Advertising of the future will no longer be hit and hope, it will be highly personalised and very intrusive but there will be far more sinister uses for all that data. 

In that context, if Twitter died tomorrow, I wouldn't miss it. But it's records of what I have done and said are saleable to somebody so there is a lasting legacy.

In some unnerving way, the whole business model of social media is mass blackmailing. I don't necessarily mean blackmailing as we know it although there is a great deal of potential there, but I mean advertising of such a personal nature that it 'blackmails' our sensibilities into making us do things we wouldn't have done without the stimulation to do so. And the 'protection racket' will be for us to pay to stop receiving such offers all the time.

The internet will become a legalised, largely unregulated forum for a good old protection racket.

There's more. Just as financiers have turned to nuclear physicists to help them beat the markets, psychologists can be used to make us all part with cash we would never have parted with otherwise. Supermarkets use 'data warehousing' to look at our individual buying habits and give us 'suggested trolley loads' and then tailor offers to make us buy more - because they know we will. In fact, they will be able to predict the precise moment to know when we will be more prone to do so.

How? If we Tweet or add a Facebook message with specific data, don't be surprised to find something specifically tailored to the context of what you have just done using all your personal data to predict exactly what you will do next. To sell that exact moment to an advertiser could become the nirvana of every social media company.

So it isn't just your personal space that is for sale, it is every second of your existence based on the intimate knowledge of you as an individual and every personal and financial piece of data on you and your family, friends and business associates.

There is a way to go yet on this journey. But people don't invest this kind of money in such flimsy business ideas without the firm knowledge that there is a mega payback. The payback will be guaranteed by our ever increasing willingness to not just surrender more personal data onto the web but to be able to track exactly what we are doing and when.

You didn't think there was a reason for setting Facebook as your default internet page with automatic login? Didn't you, really? 

In the world of monetisation of social media, the real fun has yet to begin. I hear people bleat about data protection and privacy but I would challenge that not more than 1% of all the 800m Facebook users has ever read more than the first sentence of the company's Terms of Use.

You didn't really think all these benevolent platforms were for free, did you? Microsoft gave us all those lovely free products and yet made 40% net profit on sales. 

Nothing is ever really given for free.

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