The largest hole on the social web today is the one right outside your front door.
As counter intuitive as it sounds, proximity is the antithesis of the web’s dna. The key element of the web is certainly people and their interconnections, but its blind side is where these bump into each other, and businesses at the street level.
This anomaly is one of the core quirks of the web, and throws interesting wrenches and untapped upside on its usage as a business runway for neighborhoods.
Local and neighborhood from a web perspective are not necessarily the same.
Local, wrapped in the idea of a global local market, is native to the web and intrinsic to the commercial power of distributed aggregation models like marketplaces. This is a make-in-your-basement-sell-anywhere paradigm. Local is the origin and often the allure, but not necessarily nor often the market.
Neighborhood is the antithesis of this in some ways.
It’s a physical and emotional place, where we live and shop. We may buy local (stuff produced here) but it’s a matrix on the geographical grid. Neighborhoods have coordinates at the street level. Local doesn’t necessarily.
It’s odd that the web’s flatness is its power as a community umbrella across time and space, but its softness as a tool for business when you add place to the matrix.
Today, if I want to find out what the difference is between the Rofosco and the Terlan grapes, I just ask my networks. A holistic vet who does Skype calls with your pet? No problem. Even where to eat the next time I’m standing at the corner of St. Germain des Pres and Rue di Buci in Paris.
But add location within a neighborhood, the idea of around-the-corner and human touch, and it starts to fissure. Need a trusted cat or babysitter who works in your neighborhood? Or to gather a group of people within four blocks to petition to get the street lights fixed? Non trivial.
This is the world of tear-offs at the local coffee shop, or in-building emails or bulletin board systems. The web just doesn’t parse itself this way well.
It is possible to sit at your desk and build a community online around people who believe in and share recipes, for example, for non allergenic cooking or natural wine or city cycling or cat rescue. But open a restaurant at street level and you’ll find quickly that exercise on the social nets are easy to do, but less actionable in filling up your reservations.
From the neighborhood business side, this nothing but upside and possibility.
There’s a reason that we still get flyers under our apartment doors. Not that they work but there is no real or readily available alternative.
Neighborhood is the next connected frontier. Many are trying figure out how to make this work, none that I know of as yet are doing so with much success.
Groupon and its clones thought they had an answer. Foursquare, while I’m awed by its ambition and determination, serves better from the user side in than from the business side out. If I had a street level business I would try it but my expectations are not high for results.
This discontinuity between the power of the web to verticalize in interest across a horizontal swatch of space and its impotence in the face of place and neighborhood is one of its more interesting dichotomies.
This is the marketing and community nut to crack.
It’s becoming more interesting every day, as more and more, the web as a virtual reality is being turned on its head and taking what I think is its rightful place as a connecting ramp grounded in a physical street address.
There’s a retail renaissance in the making, a developing concept of connected retail where things are sold, person to person, in stores, trucks, popups, pushcarts. And location becomes visible and intrinsic, the open end of the web’s connection.
We will see more brands built online moving to street-side store fronts to touch their customers, build community and city connections and drive business and brand. In New York at least, a spot of sidewalk is honestly a greater kickstart to a community of users than a URL by itself.
Connected neighborhoods are one of the last miles of the social web to get tethered to the real world. Or maybe this is the first time that the social web is anchored in real world at all.
For businesses and marketers, this is a puzzle piece that’s been a long time coming.
For almost two decades now we’ve built on the web to capitalize on its reach, its immediacy, its frictionless nature. We’ve thought brilliantly how to imbue behavioral characteristics to UX , to transactions, to virtual connection. And the science of web marketing has followed.
A connected neighborhood turns this trend on its head. It will make the web bend to people’s and businesses needs rather than us to it. The web is where we register our views not live our lives. The web is where we connect with the intent to meet. The web where shops down the street will find customers one the web that live on the next block and bring them in the door.
Web marketers may lament that there are no tools to do this. There aren’t.
Savvy marketers and business people will start where they always have, with the person in front of them and tie the string starting with place and immediacy. That’s always been where it belongs.
One of the big gotchas of the social web is that what makes it so empowering for individuals is also it’s greatest challenge as a platform for business.
At its core, the web is naturally a platform for people. It highlights each of us in the center of a self-curated world with our popularity equaling our reach and influence.
It is as personally powerful as it is addictive. Remarkably self-centered and surprisingly a great platform for collective groups of individuals, the community.
Lately, the idea is being bandied about as fact that for businesses to be successful on the web, somehow they need to take on a personal persona and exist side by side on an equal plane with you, me, General Electric, our favorite restaurant, our dentist and Walmart.
It just isn’t so. And a dead end marketing strategy.
I’m not a social commerce denier in any way. The opposite actually.
I’ve posted endlessly on how the web has changed not only our lives but also the essence of how we do business. How the customer is squarely the center of the commercial world. And that we are entering the world where marketplaces are the most natural platform for business.
But, companies aren’t people, no matter how humanized. And neither are brands. Business is not a masquerade, a product in an individual’s clothing.
It’s a fascinating dichotomy. The web as an organic platform for people and communications, and businesses’ uncomfortable use of it for commercial purposes.
For people, the web is a frictionless runway. Individual voices, transparent messages, global reach for the clear of intent are not the exception. The web as a platform for connected individuals just works.
For pundits and people doing business as themselves, it’s a dream platform. There is little separation between the brand presented to clients or fans, and the more cleverly you share your quirks, the more somehow this informs the potency of your professionalism.
But as companies or for products we sell that are beyond ourselves, this is simply not the case. It just doesn’t hold true.
Selling stuff and services as a company is where the social continuum appears to splinter. The web doesn’t belong to companies; it belongs to their customers.
This is not to say that commerce doesn’t spring out of community. Nor that conversations across the web don’t indeed sell product. Or that transparency isn’t an essential component of doing business today.
But the idea that companies need to act like as individuals and refabricate themselves to exist on the social web is chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole.
With people, our product is our personality. With companies, our personalities are in the products and services we provide and how we deliver them. The aggregate of that is the brand that our customers bestow on us over time.
Every one of us and every company falls prey to trolling the social web on blogs for comments and connections, on Facebook and social nets for new customers and prospects. We do it cause its there and it’s easy. It’s an incomplete strategy.
Every business and marketing person faces this pull and contradiction daily.
Individually we start each day, checking into our nets to discover products and things to do, connect with friends and plan our lives. We get to our offices; sit in front of our computers and often stare dumbfounded about how to discover and talk to those same customers that look just like ourselves.
This is the social web business dilemma in a nutshell.
Building markets and understanding customer behaviors are neither simple nor trivial tasks. And complicated of course by the newness of the social web itself and its constant state of flux.
For myself, regardless of the market segment or social platform, these guidelines work for me as a marketer:
-Acknowledge that the web is not about your company or product but the customer’s view of them. Cede them control and embrace the messiness of the market if you want to harness it.
-Every product, every community of customers is unique. Crossfitters want to celebrate their personal fortitude while learning how to get more fit. Organic Avenue is as much about what’s in the juice as to how it tastes. SoulCycle, the monster spinning brand,is about instructor heroes, including their SoulPups.
-Don’t try to sell where your customers play. Nobody transacts on Facebook. Trying it again is against the human grain and won’t work.
-Measurement is not the end goal. Understanding customer behavior is. If your takeaway is a number you are not learning enough.
Try these directions on for size and apply them to the specifics of your business and the social platforms you are using.
This is very hard stuff to crack. A combined task of marketing, community management, product development and every external facing connection in your company.
Understanding your customer’s behavior is no less complex and ineffable than your customers themselves and the market they represent. There is certainly no easier way to do this and possibly, in today’s connected world, no other way at all.
Community and engagement have been the big conversations this week.
My weekend post, Filtering the web for connections through conversations, struck a chord. The comment string (some 70 plus) was an education in itself. Announcing the Disqus numbers that over 500,000 comments are posted per day on their platform was a big aha for many. A strong nod of affirmation that community really matters.
For communities and commenters, we heard loud and clear that we were not alone. Communities may be isolated on the web but commentors are a mainstream crossover category.
Engag.io’s commenting survey came out at Blog World.
Fred Wilson, Jeff Minch (JLM), William Mougayar and I presented the results. A great discussion, but the survey was less revelatory and more a confirmation of what the Disqus numbers told us. People are talking. A lot. And using conversations to find information, broaden their networks and make purchasing decisions.
Most revealing (and fun) was a Disqus-sponsored roundtable. Fred Wilson introduced the session and Ro Gupta from Disqus was the MC for the room of 50 bloggers, entrepreneurs, VCs and web thinkers. An engaged exercise in group thinking, a wish list of likes and wants about community commenting platforms.
This was obviously a partisan crowd at the tip of the commenting market. The discussion was less about looking for market proof and more about the gap between the needs of the community space and the offerings of the commenting platforms.
And gaps there are.
As powerful as these global conversations are for impacting change and as great as commenting systems like Disqus are in hosting them, comment search on one side and discovery on the other are broken. And badly.
There is a massive online population adding millions of pieces of rich conversational data daily with sophisticated platforms to encourage and organize threaded conversations.
But good luck finding, collating, editing and republishing these libraries of great content. Some bright stars like Kevin Marshall’s gawk.it are just starting to tackle this. Keep your eye on Gawk.it. It’s a garage band today, a potential rock star tomorrow.
Engag.io is breaking future ground, putting you in the middle of your conversations across the fragmented social nets. And touching on something special around conversational discovery with thoughtful tidbits from commenters you follow as discovery ring tones.
But discovery around communities generally is broken. Feels like it is being ignored for the most part by the big commenting platforms.
Following people to conversations to discover context is interesting. But it’s not the game changer.
For huge portals, discovering threads within the post’s conversational string is useful but not that exciting for the mass market of niche communities. Cross community connections is the sharp edge of the spear for the broader conversational market.
People are always searching for new connections. Whether you are in sales, marketing or a developer, your network is never big nor deep enough. The answer is not just blog rolls. Most communities have blogs but a very small percentage of blogs are truly communities.
We don’t need blog search, we need community discovery. This was echoed loud and clear this week from everywhere
The tens of millions of commenters on communities across the web want to wake up every morning and discover new conversations and communities. That’s the definition of breaking news today.
If you are interested in education, nutrition, community design or sports…you don’t want just facts or blog rolls, you want to discover the most dynamic conversations going on in communities that intersect with your interests.
We want to follow our interests where the conversations are happening sorted by the most dynamic and by topic. If you want to discover the thought leaders to engage with, follow the most active conversations.
The problem is of course, you just can’t find these conversations.
Communities are hidden under the fabric of the comments themselves. Actually communities are isolated and very laborious to find.
Imagine this, a better world.
Tomorrow morning after you clean your inbox and check in with your normal communities, you are presented with a list of trending topics by the dynamics of the conversations. The top 50 community conversations across a variety of topics you’ve opted in to follow.
Or better, with thousands of bits of information from your comments, you’ve created a map of your interests and connections. An atomic chart that defines what serendipity means to you and, like a recommendation on Amazon, you get suggestions on cool and interesting conversations that you didn’t even know you were looking for.
We are defining our interest footprint with each comment and gesture we make on Disqus and Word Press, Facebook and Twitter. It’s all there. Discovery both implicit and explicit is possible.
The fact that no one is taking this market need seriously is seriously wacko.
My friends at Disqus will be annoyed with me as I’ve been talking about this for years. @danielha knows that this is my version of tough love. I just want this. So does the market.
Community discovery is a big evolutionary step on the social web. The easier it is, the more connections will happen. The more connections that happen, the more it will drive discovery of communities that you are comfortable participating in. This is a circle of conversational goodness for all involved.
This is the link that tips the scale.
This is also the link that moves commenting platforms from smart plumbing to part of the community fabric itself. Today we thrive on the power of threaded conversations and are annoyed when alerts are broken. It’s a road that we want the potholes fixed but will keep on driving on.
Give us community search. Make it obvious that the more we communicate, the better the network gets and the more it connects us to other conversations. When commenting platforms do this, they are no longer plumbing. They become part of the pulse of the community itself.
Somebody needs to just bring this.
It’s not often that market tells us what they need to do to succeed. This is one of those times.
Conversations are fast becoming my tool for discovering information and connections on the web.
Most every morning, post sorting through emails, I check continuing conversations from the day before, jump onto friends’ blogs and, if lucky, discover interesting comment threads to weigh in on.
This idea that we lean on our networks for information is not new. I’ve blogged on it before before. But the push towards a more conversational and engaged poise as discovery certainly is.
Maybe this realization is driven by the evolution of my information needs, which are less today about searching for facts and more about discovering direction and people.
Or maybe with the majority of the world’s population comfortably online and the Internet fast enough to support real-time social discourse, we no longer need to lean on technology to capitalize on the web’s human potential.
I don’t know…but it’s certainly true that the web has become more and more about people and less about technology and platforms. People are advanced social animals. We talk a lot. About everything.
Socialization is how we learn and work and play. Conversations have become– for me at least–the measure of online value. They replace links, clicks and likes. Beyond a faceless click and a knee jerk social gesture.
I’m not alone.
Ro Gupta from Disqus, my favorite web commenting system, shared some off the cuff data on the state of commenting today.
Ro estimated that people interact with the Disqus platform of over 1 million blogs over a 100 million minutes everyday. On an average day, some 500,000 comments are posted. Figuring a minute or two to write a comment, commenters are spending some 17,000 hours a day posting across the Disqus platform.
This is just Disqus of course. Add Facebook comments, native Word Press, the smaller players and this non-scientific stab at scale speaks to a decent swatch of the social web that is talking and engaging daily.
The idea of a conversational web feels real to me. I use Google for details like what time it is in Kenya or how to change a battery on my camera, but for basically everything else asking my networks and clarifying with conversations is proving more and more the answer.
The time in value out equation is out of whack.
Conversations of course are both chatter and work, informational and personal. A blurry line that will get even larger as more and more join in.
The basic rule of network efficiency and relationships plays here as well. If you want a network or community to know, listen and support you, then you need to put in the time to know them. Lots of time.
The results can be spectacular. With friendships, new customers and great ideas as the offshoot. In fact, a whole new way of doing business and building community starts from this.
But it’s also messy and a time sink. In fact, a variant of ADD seems inherent in the approach itself.
Companies like Engag.io are making strides to ameliorate this. They have a vision to defrag attention, refocus time, and connect people through an engagement bridge. It’s adding efficiencies but also hints at the big gotcha, discovery, where the key to this paradigm lies.
I’m torn whether efficiency is really the answer though.
Once you put people front and center, the dues you pay is time and engagement. The value of these connections and relationships simply may outweigh it all and change the value equation.
Discovery is still more aspirational than reality.
The Disqus numbers comfort me and let me know that I’m not alone.
But they frustrate me more, like a Ray Bradbury sci-fi nightmare, where there are waves of people talking about what interests you, but you just can’t find them.
Something is out of whack.
I tracked my top 20 conversational contacts through engag.io to see where they were hanging out. I was searching to discover a new group of communities to broaden my networks.
The breadth of my friends reach was actually very small. My networks grow more by pulling in others through social gravity to where I am, than discovering new communities to engage with.
Makes you wonder where the 500,00 daily Disqus comments are? In deep community pockets like avc.com just beyond my view or spread like air across the social web?
How many communities of engaged people around niches of interest are? How do I find them efficiently or take the right position for serendipity to happen?
Discovery is the big nut to crack.
Disqus could do it. Engag.io could. Lots of creative minds are circling around this. It is the key to the next iteration of the social if not the conversational web.
Engagement is the new currency of the web but it’s still very scarce.
While most communities are blog-based, very few blogs are communities. This is not semantics.
Community requires leadership but is defined by the people who are engaged not by the personality of the blogger that leads. It’s a dance but the rhythm comes from the community.
The disconnect is that while the value of a community model grows, the number of new communities of substance seems disproportionately small. Or maybe I just haven’t figured out how to find them.
This is a topic with more questions than answers. Please do share your thoughts and where you find engagement and value on the web.
engag.io is conducting a research survey on the State of Online Conversations that closes tomorrow. If you have a few moments, do help out. The survey is here.
I am presenting the results of the survey on a Blog World panel next week in New York with Fred Wilson, Jeffrey Minch and William Mougayar.
Social commerce was premised on the idea that if you have a community of engaged users on a dynamic enough platform, somehow commerce will happen.
That’s the promise inherent in F Commerce and the culprit behind the ill-conceived notion that somehow every social act is measurable as a pipeline for a sale.
Having a business model that works economically for large engaged communities is one thing. Think Facebook and targeted ads. Old school media with deep social hooks. As these numbers from Ad Age show, it certainly works.
Having an environment where goods and services change hands is another thing altogether.
Facebook, with 800+ million connected people, has remarkably little commerce, if any. Funnels of influence and lead flow, brand building and reputation peddling but seemingly transactionless. I keep asking my networks for examples of commerce on Facebook and keep coming up empty.
The why of this is not obvious.
The social twins, community and commerce, should by nature work together. They certainly do in real life on the street level. Shopping is social by design. Malls as a concept do work.
But the logic of replicating what happens in the real world invariably fails on the social web. We need to think beyond the behavior to commerce itself, and whether a store and a discrete location are still a relevant definition of retail.
Facebook imagined that the pedestrian mall existed at the intersection of personal and fan pages on the social graph. This is the old retail crowd formula that location is everything and if you put up a store where there is qualified foot traffic and brand recognition, sales just happen.
Or so was the thinking.
Community designers know innately that you can’t bolt social loops onto commerce sites and expect them to be reborn as community. Most every legacy business and many start-ups have tried with little success.
It’s clear as well that you can’t bolt commerce onto community and expect a marketplace to materialize. The human dynamic that bonds offline around a sense of place and socialization is misapplied. Thinking about online as a virtual mirror of offline never works.
This doesn’t imply that social and transactions, commerce and community are disconnected. Not at all. Just ill-imagined.
We need to move past this narrow idea of social commerce and think of the web as one economy with funnels of community and commerce around niches of interests and intent.
My friend, Mark Essel and I, have long debated the community commerce dilemma. Communities of interest, no matter how dynamic, reject overt commerce as foreign even though off community commerce between members happens frequently.
With communities of interest, the intent is engagement in a many-to-many model. The open mike, town hall idea with handshakes and deals struck in the parking lot. With marketplaces, commerce is the intent, with a one-to-one model, where socialization and referrals happen outside of the community.
Think about the social design aspect of virtual worlds. It was all about place. We moved from place to place like wanderers through a desert, knocking on niche doors. This was community as a virtual world before a social web inhabited by real people.
Facebook, and AOL before it, define themselves as virtual places. As intact platforms. Gesture and engagement, socialization and commerce, referrals and transactions are all-inclusive.
That’s the wrong turn.
The only platform on the web is the web itself. Not Facebook nor even Disqus as the connector.
There are deep communities of engagement and interest like avc.com. Deep marketplaces like Kickstarter. But the commerce around communities happens elsewhere as does the community around marketplaces.
But both happen. Focused intent to engage around discussions or focused intent to buy are facets of the whole, which spread out like threads between our connected lives. Between an online catalog for the Gap and the approval of our friends on what clothes we buy.
This idea has been crystallizing as I’m reading ‘The Intention Economy’ by Doc Searls. The principal theme of the book, underneath imagining a new future, is that the web is about me. And you. And each of us individually on one platform that we all inhabit.
Products like engag.io attempt to put a moving lens on all of our engagements as we move around the web. They follow us, not us them.
The rash of flash popup sales sites like Shoplocket, are tying transactions to shares, inventing Sharing 2.0 as inclusive of commerce.
This points towards an idea that each of us carries a personalized Point of Sale system as a commercial mirror image to our social or community core.
This bridges not just the community and commerce paradigm but the off and online one as well.
When I think of huge brands like Nike with massive fan bases, both on and offline, I would bet that in the near future their connection to their customers will be just one click away from a sale wherever the fan might be. The store will be wherever the fan is and sharing will carry an embedded transaction.
I’ve believed for some time that community existed in the connecting thread between URLs and web places. In the tissue of the web and society itself.
There is truth to that but the dynamics of the web itself as one ‘place’ is more about community and commerce being wherever we happen to be. Individuals as a gyroscope tilting one way or another and carrying our connected social loops with us.
Technologists think about this as an open sourced web. Community designers think about this unfettered individualism and communities without walls.
Same belief. Different words. Both right on.