Failing To Understand Social Networks

Published at OnIslam.net
As an early adopter I was among the first to take benefit from new web and social platforms. From uploading a video clip of my encounter with baby panda bears in China onto YouTube where I reached 50,000 hits almost overnight, to sharing photos on Flickr where it wasn’t so much how many comments you had but rather how many invites to share your photos across the different groups. Over time, more platforms were launched from the more comprehensive such as Facebook to the more specialist such as StumbleUpon. As diverse as each is, they all offer a unique way in which to create and share digital content.

 
In parallel I witnessed a change in mobile corporate philosophy, where once companies looked to beat their competition, now they look to merge with their competition. The new buzz word was and still is ‘convergence’, where working together, in theory at least, would empower and create better competitive advantage. This same philosophy has since ported onto the digital landscape creating a minefield difficult to navigate, often confusing the user along with those looking to create a presence across these platforms.

 
Some months ago I delivered a presentation to the board of a mid sized company with a presence in 40+ countries. While experts in their own respective fields, the generational gap was clearly apparent as some members had little if any knowledge or experience of either online social networking or mobile.

 
Worse, they demonstrated a symptom synonymous with most organizations when considering digital strategies, focusing on the social media platform while ignoring the technologies used by consumers to access those platforms.

 
Over Converging

 

One can quote a line from a 1980s movie “If you build it, they will come”, but while creating a presence, an activity, an experience, an exchange is wonderful, if people cannot access it the way it was designed, “they will not come.” This is a problem increasingly being faced by many, whether it is with regards to websites and platforms or whether it is with regards to social and mobile campaigns and strategies.

 
Years ago I was a regular visitor to a social media website designed for the English speaking Muslim community. Set up by an American Pakistani entrepreneur, it was run fairly well with a sense of structure, style and function. Sure, there were occasional mishaps, such as photos of people not being approved despite there being nothing inappropriate with them, but the idea was a great innovation.

 
As Facebook grew many of us managed two identities, and over time most of us switched allegiance to Facebook. After years of claimed updates and improvements, the website had finally undergone the promised change so when invited to return and log into the service, I did and was left dumbstruck.

 
What was once a very good service to exchange ideas, make friends, and entertain yourself, had become a redesigned introduction-dating-professional networking hybrid. In an effort to compete with the likes of the leading social and networking platforms, they combined interfaces into almost every conceivable digital platform, including Linkedin.

 
Part of me wants to say that they have taken convergence to the extreme, but another part of me wants to point out that they have abused the digital landscape delivering such a confused structure, that in trying to be all things to all people, they have failed – at least to those in my user case generation. Worse, as I discovered via Facebook, some people are still struggling to have uploaded photographs of themselves ‘approved’.

 
In their Social Networking Market Opportunity report, Business Insights include a chart which plots the launch date of the major social media networking websites. They include and refer to the relaunch of QQ – the leading Chinese messaging network – in 2006.

 
What they do not mention is that QQ was up and running many years before the likes of Twitter; I distinctively remember while in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, that Chinese colleagues used QQ to engage and interact with others as far back as 2004. While some social platforms redesign themselves to become more streamlined and efficient, others fail their target market by doing too much and loosing focus.

 
Your Kids Know
It is said that by 2015 there will be nearly 2 billion unique social media users. There are a plethora of websites created around the concept of linking but that do not add real value, service or user engagement. Even existing websites when developing their presence integrate so many user customizable functions and options such that when visiting the site the user is lost. Personalization? Yes, but within structural limits.

 
From an advertising perspective, with mobile technologies and mobile applications playing a significant role in creating the social user engagement experience, there are many lessons to be learnt. From poorly designed digital campaigns, such as Sony’s Resident Evil campaign which led many to believe they actually had a virus on their computer, to brands jumping onto the bandwagon expecting to replicate the success of another without leveraging their own Universal Serial Port (USP).

 
It is said that 2011, for example, will be the year for Luxury brands. Time, however, will show how these brands chose to engage with the consumer – what works for WalMart will neither be relevant nor beneficial to their digital presence.

 
In trying to navigate the social landscape the message is simple. Whether delivering information, services or products, do not try to integrate every platform into your offering else, as the Muslim-centric social media website has demonstrated, you will end up alienating your users. Consumers do not want everything, rather, they want something which works, and works well.

 
If you are a brand offering engagement experiences, ensure that it is both relevant to your target market and accessible across the different technology interfaces. And if you are a typical executive above 45 developing a social digital campaign, first run the idea by one of your children; if they are unable to appreciate it, most likely, neither will the rest of us.

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