Social media has come a long way in a short time. In just a few years it has become one of the dominant forms of communication across the industrialised world. But we are still at the very beginning of the growth curve, writes Dan Matthews
Ten years ago, way back in June 2003, hardly any of the current crop of mega-websites existed. Facebook would be launched in eight months’ time; Twitter hadn’t even been thought of (it went live in summer 2006).
YouTube wouldn’t appear for another two-and-a-half years, and Pinterest was but a twinkle in its founders’ eyes, launched nearly seven years later in March 2010.
In fact, for early adopters the options for internet dialogue were fairly restricted. People who trawled the internet would have uncovered an embryonic month-old LinkedIn; Wikipedia had just celebrated its second birthday and the now long-forgotten Friends Reunited was the old man of the internet at the ripe age of three.
Apart from these examples, social networking looked like a fractured cluster of forums, journals and weblogs, populated by geeks and focused on niche topics.
Ten years on everything’s different. The geeks are still chattering, but they have been joined by an enormous mainstream of me-toos uploading messages, pictures and video with increasingly sophisticated gadgetry – not just desktop computers – to appear on a colourful tapestry of multi-faceted websites.
Social media has limitless scope to modernise and reach into new areas of business that even the brightest brains are yet to comprehend
A trillion-dollar industry has blown up around the phenomenon to rival any other sector – motoring, fuels, pharmaceuticals – the world has to offer. At its peak, Facebook had a market cap of $104 billion; compare that with Ford’s current valuation of little more than $60 billion.
But we’re still at the very beginning of the boom. Social media has limitless scope to modernise and reach into new areas of business that even the brightest brains are yet to comprehend. It makes predicting even the short-term future a tricky proposition.
“The user experience will be a lot simpler than it is now,” says Tamara Littleton, chief executive of eModeration. “We’ll see integration between different platforms and it will all be accessed from a mobile device.
“Of course,” she adds, “that means social networks will track us more effectively – as Google is starting to do – but the trade-off is that we get more relevant, personalised content. There’s also plenty of scope for specialist products that help users jump between social networks smoothly.”
Not only will the websites change, but so will the technologies that we use to access them. The trend towards greater mobility is typified by wearable technology, which itself is currently typified by Google’s new eyewear, Glass.
Businesses that feed wearable computing must proceed carefully, however. The user experience is, by definition, intensely personal and even the most sold-up technophile will balk if brands fail to present buying opportunities with perfect subtlety.
“Wearables are intensely personal devices,” says Tunde Cockshott, creative consultant for Amaze. “They collect information about me and my experiences, my body, my location, my environment, my activities, my social graph, my field of vision, my interests. Successful wearable devices will use this data, coupled with online and proprietary sources, to augment people’s experiences of the world.
“Brands cannot storm into this deeply personal experience and be welcome. If we are currently annoyed by mobile ads then overt adverts directly in our field of vision will be ten times worse. Brands will need to think of how they can use data in a way that will provide users with a service or utility fitting their augmented lives.”
For those of us not yet ready to wear a computer, mobile will nevertheless be fertile ground for social media sites and the brands that piggy-back them. Mobile visits to Facebook and Twitter are already outstripping those from static desktops as demand grows for instant data on the move.
Mark Iremonger, chief strategy officer at iCrossing, says mobile will be the theatre of war for social media rivals for years to come. “It will be interesting to see how Google and Facebook fare in owning the mobile experience. Expect deep integration with communications, contacts and diary management,” he says.
Mobile is also influencing the way content is fed to consumers through social media. According to Jeremy Garner, executive creative director at Weapon7, technology is merging to form a singularity in which content and devices will integrate seamlessly with the world around us.
This is called the “Web of Things”, in which our everyday interactions with people, tools and services will all be linked to the internet.
“The common thread is how to humanise technology, from no-touch interfaces to pattern recognition and connecting consumers with the Web of Things. It’s answering the question of how can we make accessing content more impulsive, immediate, intuitive,” says Mr Garner.
“People are constantly striving to remove the barriers that stand between them and the content that will inform, entertain and educate. When computers eventually disappear altogether, when they’re seamlessly embedded within the Web of Things, then content and search will be combined as one.”
Another change which will solidify in the short-term is the type of companies doing business through social media channels. Many firms in old-world industries still see social media communication as “cheap” and invasive, but it’s a view that is steadily crumbling.
“Twitter is great for intelligence gathering, whether about our customers, the legal market, or our competitors, and I’ve been amazed at how it’s opened doors,” says Karl Chapman, chief executive of Riverview Law.
“One of our most important audiences is general legal counsel at FTSE companies and by building relationships based on shared interests and views, we’ve secured meetings with some very senior contacts. Social media really has broken down barriers.”
If anything, the rate of change is speeding up, making the social landscape very different from that of a single, short decade ago. Ten years from now the changes will redouble, with all-encompassing media accessed through ultra-portable systems.
The mission for brands is to match the rate of transformation, delivering on the expectations of stakeholders without falling foul of the textbook social media faux pas; these never change.