‘Not a Site, but a Concept’: Tapping the Power of Social Networking

‘Not a Site, but a Concept’: Tapping the Power of Social Networking

Published: July 09, 2008 in Knowledge@Wharton

Mini USA, the American branch of BMW’s Mini Cooper line, tracks
everything being said about its brand everywhere on line — in blogs,
discussion groups, forums, MySpace pages and much more — then uses
what it learns to guide advertising campaigns.

At Hewlett-Packard, 50 executives log into their individual blogs
each morning to join the ongoing online conversation about each of
their product lines, immediately responding to customer problems and

Ernst & Young recruits many of the 3,500 college graduates it
hires every year using a career group on Facebook, where it not only
posts job information but also answers individual questions from
prospective employees. And Del Monte Pet Foods uses a private online
community to regularly "chat" with 400 pet lovers whose opinions help
shape new products.

These are all examples of companies savvy enough to participate in
the "groundswell," according to Charlene Li, vice president and
principal analyst at Forrester Research. "The groundswell is a social
trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from
each other, rather than from traditional institutions like

Li was a speaker at the recent Supernova conference, an annual technology event in San Francisco organized by Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Kevin Werbach in collaboration with Wharton. Li and Forrester colleague Josh Bernoff have co-authored a book on the subject, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.

"The more you know and understand the individuals who make up the
groundswell around your brand and your company, the more you can use
the new social networking phenomenon to your advantage," she said.

Such understanding comes from going well beyond traditional user
surveys, however. According to Li and other speakers at the conference,
too few companies study how people actually interact with the web and
utilize online collaborative tools, yet much of today’s Internet
revolves around individual users, the content they create, the
communities they form and the transactions they choose.

"People’s lives are rich and complex, so you need to get data both
in the large and in the small," said Elizabeth Churchill, principal
research scientist at Yahoo! Research whose work focuses on user
Internet experiences. "That means quantitative data from large groups
to answer the ‘who, what, where and how’ questions, and qualitative
data to answer the ‘why’ questions. For example, we know from research
done by [photo sharing website] Flickr that while Americans are big
sharers of photos, Scandinavians are not. Why? What is the cultural
impact on photo sharing?"

Failed Searches and Alpha Moms

Looking more carefully at people’s behavior on the Internet can
uncover surprises, sometimes calling into question basic assumptions —
for instance, that most young people are adept at using the Internet.
Conference presenter Eszter Hargittai, Northwestern University
professor of sociology and communication studies, studied a diverse
group of students attending the University of Illinois at Chicago and
found that 43% failed on a search task, based largely on their
misunderstanding of Internet terminology and on their inability to
navigate links.

Hargittai reviewed research showing that people differ significantly
in their understanding of various Internet-related terms and
activities. For example, when asked to assess their own Internet
know-how, women, African Americans, Hispanics and those with poorly
educated parents report lower levels of knowledge than men or Asian

"Since such skills are not randomly distributed among the
population, certain content providers and content users stand a better
chance of benefiting from the medium than others," said Hargittai.

Li agreed, citing Forrester research on the range of behavior on the
web, which is sometimes based on skill and demographics, while at other
times linked more to a user’s stage of life. So-called Alpha Moms "are
comfortable with technology, interested in parenting, and have
above-average incomes," said Li, "but they have no time. So if you’re
trying to reach them, you don’t give them blogs. You give them
communities of their peers with opportunities for feedback."

To help companies target their Internet strategies, Li and Bernoff
have organized Forrester research into a "social technology ladder,"
which classifies consumers based on their participation in various
types of social networking. At the lowest rung of the ladder are the
"inactives," some 44% of all U.S. American adults who were online in
2007. Higher up are the "joiners," the 25% who visit social networking
sites like MySpace; collectors, an elite 15% who collect and aggregate
information; and critics, those who post ratings and reviews as well as
contribute to blogs and forums. Only 18% of all online Americans
actually create content, publishing an article or a blog at least once
a month, maintaining a web page or uploading content to sites like

The power of such a classification lies in giving organizations a
clear understanding of how consumers are behaving online, said Li. "Any
successful strategy to tap into the groundswell has to begin with
assessing customers’ social activities. Then you can decide what you
want to accomplish, plan for how your relationship with your customers
will change, and finally decide what social technology to use."

Li is currently investigating why people move up and down this
ladder of social technologies, and what are the levers companies can
use to encourage consumers to act. It is critical for organizations to
hone their understanding of groundswell activities, said Li, because
"in five to 10 years, social networks will be everywhere."

The New Black

Google’s Joe Kraus agrees. Speaking at the Supernova conference, the
director of product management for the search giant acknowledged that
social networking is the latest fashion — "the new black," as he
called it. "But people have been endlessly fascinated by one another
for a very long time. Social networking is not new; we just have new
ways to do it."

That is not to diminish the power of social computing. In fact,
Kraus already sees it as the force behind three major trends in the way
people use the Internet.

First, "the process of information discovery is changing from a
solitary activity to a communal activity," said Kraus, citing as an
example his own recent behavior in choosing an anniversary gift for his
wife. He searched and found that candy is traditional for a sixth
anniversary, then set up a message on his G-mail account, saying he
needed ideas for a candy-based gift.

A friend emailed to tell him of an extraordinary baker who
constructs specialty cakes and, thanks to her suggestion, his sixth
anniversary gift became an elaborate cake in the shape of a colorful
purse. So, said Kraus, he went from solitary information discovery to
social information discovery — and a much better result than he could
have achieved on his own.

Second, he said, how we exchange information is changing, from
sharing information actively (emailing photos to friends) to sharing it
passively (uploading those photos to Facebook and emailing notification
to friends). "What’s happening is that we’re separating access from
notification," said Kraus. This leads to more sharing because people
don’t worry as much about interrupting others with emails, calling
attention to themselves and appearing too self-important.

Third, and most important, Kraus sees the web eventually becoming
entirelysocial. "Today, social computing is something you do at a
specific site," said Kraus. "But we’re realizing that being social is
not a site. It’s a concept."

We won’t get to that entirely social web, he added, until we find
ways to allow users to do three things: establish a single identity to
log on to many sites; share private resources such as photos or contact
lists without handing out private credentials (such as an email account
password); and distribute information across multiple social

Google Friend Connect, a service that enables websites to easily
provide social features for its visitors, incorporates three standards
that respectively address each of those problems — Open ID, OAuth and
OpenSocial, says Kraus. A preview version of the service was released
in May. He sees Google Friend Connect as a path to the open web he
predicts will arrive sooner than we imagine. "Already you can browse a
site like the New York Times or Amazon, then write comments
and reviews. Why shouldn’t I be able to go to the Ticketmaster site and
see where my friend is sitting at a concert I want to attend, providing
he wants to expose the information?"

What all organizations need to prepare for, said Kraus, is a
completely social web, where "your users will simply expect to be part
of the conversation."

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