The Internet is everywhere. On TVs, phones, computers, even refrigerators and security cameras. With this ubiquity comes a massive increase in the amount of information available at our fingertips.
In the early days of the Internet, we found content and information by going to list-based directories. AOL and Yahoo! (and, for those of you who remember, Prodigy and CompuServe) organized information around topics. Editors curated content by category and the users were largely anonymous.
Then came search engines. Infoseek, Alta Vista and most significantly Google, turned the model around by putting the user in control. Crawlers, bots and spiders gathered information from the World Wide Web and, users typed key words to find relevant content. Bots and algorithms, in conjunction with the users, curated the information. A filter through which we could find information using words emerged. The engines capture intent, but users are still largely anonymous. Google, with arguably the best algorithm and processes to present this information, has created massive amount of value for consumers and shareholders alike.
The proliferation of social networks has landed us into a whole new era on the Internet. In some respects, social networks are the most human form of digital interaction. As we connect with people we know, trust or care about, we have started to look at digital information through the lens of “trusted sources”. When we go to www.nytimes.com, we can see what our friends are reading, re-introducing the dimension of the shared narrative in an increasingly fragmented media world. Tweets and updates now inform us not only of personal information but also of what matters to those we choose to follow or friend. Information is now socially curated, just as it has been for thousands of years. Content sources and consumers are no longer faceless. While corporations try to create streams in this context, the human dimension, from known and trusted sources, is on equal footing. This is the revolution created by Zuckerberg and Dorsey and we are beginning to taste its power. Just look at Tunisia and Egypt.
As the volume of content being shared on the social web multiplies, however, the most relevant information for us as individuals passes by in the torrent of updates and tweets. Because social media is as much about self-expression as it is about the audience, information both trivial and significant flows at a torrid pace. In fact, over 30 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photos, etc.) are shared each month on Facebook alone. Twitter users initiate about a 100 million tweets per day, about 25 percent of which contain links. These numbers are growing dramatically, compounded by growing number of users of the social web, increasing numbers of sites integrating Facebook Connect and Twitter APIs, and the multiplying social graphs.
Plus, as the phones get smarter, and networks faster, as check-ins become more commonplace, a whole dimension of “visit” oriented sharing picks up steam. Visits are not just to physical places, but also to shows, and sites and beyond. In fact, Morgan Stanley predicts (as shown on the graphic below), smartphones will soon surpass PCs and the firehose of the Social Web will only get larger.
Implications for consumers
The reason for the exponential growth in shared content is that traditional methods of discovery lead only to the most popular content being consumed. But relevance and popularity are not the same. Relevant content doesn’t rise to the top in directories or “top lists” because they are self-perpetuating. The result is that we as consumers miss the information we care about most. As mobile devices became more popular vehicles for content consumption, this is even more apparent. On mobile, attention spans are short and the devices constrained by screen size and input capability.
As a result, in the world of endless category based directories, increasingly on constrained devices, users turn to social media for relevant, timely information. We saw the most dramatic example of this as events unfolded in Tunisia and Egypt. While traditional media outlets struggled to keep up, our social graphs virally propagated the most relevant and up-to-date information. Metcalfe’s law is now in full effect for content. And yet I know many people who have stopped going to Facebook and Twitter, even though they know these are powerful services that help them discover real time information and content from people they know or trust. Busy people find the volume intimidating. The firehose is getting too large.
Implications for content owners
The Internet represents a significant opportunity for content owners to reach their audiences directly, without intermediaries. Websites and increasingly apps represent the first step in this process. With the growth of APIs like Facebook Connect, content owners have leveraged the opportunity to give their users a social lens and dimension to the discovery and propagation of content. This is an important first step. The most significant opportunity for value creation in the content space lies in their ability to harness their audiences’ conversations to their advantage. This must be executed very carefully.
Content owners are attacking this on three fronts:
* Seeding content that most relevant for connected users and playing a more active role in viral content propagation.
* Harnessing the shared information to gather competitive and product intelligence.
* Using anonymized information about users’ interests and social graphs to improve advertising performance.
While building Facebook fan pages and buying ads on Facebook and Twitter to communicate messages is an important part of an overall social media strategy, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Seeding the social web with relevant content for viral effect and harnessing intelligence to target advertising can create dramatic results. Relevancy and performance of ads increases by orders of magnitude when paired with the interest and social milieu of the audience. Media companies and content owners can leverage their investments in serving ads on their digital media properties to now significantly enhance the performance of those ads, materially increasing their advertising revenues while enhancing customer satisfaction.
The exciting path ahead
This is the new frontier – delivering relevancy on the social web. Social media users are looking for ways to search, filter and make more relevant their individual experience of the revolutionary platforms being developed by Facebook, Twitter and others. Content owners and media companies have an exciting opportunity to play an active role in the conversation, delivering value for their audiences. We as both consumers and businesses stand to gain as the Internet evolves from being a dialogue from content producers and faceless users to a conversation between and among friends. (by Manish Jha, President and CEO at SkyWeaver)