Sunday, September 24, 2006

Social features vs. social functions

The social story thusfar...

This is the third in a series of posts about social networking/software, intended to put the current... er... enthusiasm... about making everything "social" into some kind of perspective, and to begin to assign some kinds of business and/or marketing terms and thoughts to the various processes and parts of social platforms.

The first two posts dealt with how we might measure the relative social value of various systems. It took me two posts to do it, since I use this space to think out loud, but with your kind patience, I came up with the following definitions:

Share of Participation: the relative value of participation in a particular type or brand of social activity by an individual or a group as measured by resource or influence

Social Share: how much of the total participation in social activities of a desired audience is aggregated to a particular brand or segment.

So "Share of Participation" might be seen as the social equivalent of "Share of Wallet," but measured in time, number of "units" of participation (entries, comments, etc.). And "Social Share" might then be an equivalent of "Mind Share" or "Market Share." The first measures how much of an individual or group's "social capital" is spent on a particular social network. The second measures how much of an entire, desired audience that network has captured. These are two very different measurements, their differences are incredibly important, and we'll get to that later in this post.

How & what vs. why

People get strategy and tactics mixed up all the time. They also get vision and mission mixed up. I've heard the two terms used interchangeably. I've always thought that "vision" makes sense as the "higher" of the two, as what you see or are looking to achieve -- your vision -- doesn't change based on what you do, but your mission(s) -- what you do -- can change over time. Missions change more often than visions, so they should be lower on the totem pole of organizational chatter. But as long as you know what you mean... fine. That's what I'm talking about. Higher vs. lower.

The "higher level" stuff is almost always concerned with strategy, and strategy is almost always concerned with "why" you are doing what you're doing as opposed to "what and how" things get done. That's because until you know the reason(s) why you (or your boss or your board or your customers) want to do something, it is almost always harder to formulate a decent plan for doing what and how. Why is that? Because there can be many, many different reasons for doing the same thing.

Witness lipstick. It's the "what" answer to a "how" question: "How do we make somebody's lips very, very red artificially?" With lipstick. Bingo. Quesion answered. Super. So... what are you going on about there, Mr. H?

Well, what I'm going on about is the difference between a feature and a function. Lipstick does, in fact, make lips very red. But if you are a woman looking to buy lipstick to make your lips red to look all sexified for your date... that's a much different function for red lips than that of a circus clown. Same feature, different function. One can argue that clowns probably use some other kind of make-up entirely; not lipstick at all. At which point I say again, "Bingo." You've now narrowed your "feature" even further. It's not just about red lips anymore, is it? It's probably about the adhesive properties of the unguents involved or something. What do I know from lipstick? But my point is, for the one feature description, "Make lips red," there are several higher level functions that are radically different.

It gets much more complex when features and functions overlap. And when they aren't well understood. And don't have a history. When media are new and everybody is jumping all overthemselves to get in on a game that seems very exciting because all those crazy kids are setting up MySpace pages and downloading YouTube videos and using the Wikipedia to research their homework because it's all so dang social... well, you need to stop and understand whether the social aspects of what they are doing are features or functions of those networks.

To put it another way: is any particular platform social in nature, or does it simply utilize social abilities to perform tasks? Or both? And, if it is social in nature... is it uniquely social? Is it creating specific social content, or easily replicable interaction? And, at this point, we're back to ways in which we might utilize measurements like share of participation and social share.

Social features: Wikipedia rules

If you don't know what Wikipedia is, and somehow you've found my little blog... that's just sad. That's like some weird kinda reverse Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing. But, be that as it may, Wikipedia is one of the best examples of a software platform that utilizes social aspects of computing almost completely as features... but is almost entirely devoid of a social function, except as an implicit byproduct for some of its authors/editors.

Most people who use Wikipedia come in contact with it as users; searchers for information. When you do that, you have no social interaction with article authors whatsoever. You are consuming information. Period. End of story, no social nuttin'. The whole Wikipedia might have been, as far as you know or care, written by one really smart dude, a computer, or a giant robot squid from the future. The social tools put into place -- the social features of a wiki -- are used in order to enable the writing and editing of articles on the site. The function of Wikipedia is to provide those articles to its readers.

If there are any social functions of the Wikipedia, they are, essentially, serendipitous; accident. You and I might "meet" while editing the same article, discover each other's email address, correspond (probably not entirely on Wikipedia, but that could happen...), fall in love, etc. etc. I'm sure that a few deep, meaningful relationships have, indeed, formed across the pages and links of Wikipedia.

Then again, I'm sure that deep, meaningful relationships have formed between mail carriers and folks on their routes. But the social aspects of mail delivery were not, and will not ever be part of the raison d'etre of the US Postal Service, FedEx or UPS. It happens. But it's not part of the "vision."

Social function: eHarmony connects

Meeting, dating and marriage are about as social as you can get. The relationship site is all about matching folks up with that "perfect someone." I have no idea if it's any good. They have good ads. But I've spent some time goofing around on their site looking at their system, and I can tell you one thing -- their Web site and tools are not social, although their service and reason for being is entirely so. Many of the individual tools/features we associate with socialness and Web 2.0 -- wiki-like functionality, tagging, user-creativity tools, individual home pages, Java/AJAX-enabled aps -- are entirely absent from eHarmony's site. Its feature-set doesn't include many social tools. But its function is 100% social -- to establish a social relationship between its users where one did not exist before they joined and used the service.

Social this vs. that? Why should we care?

About half the companies with any kind of serious truck on the Web are monkeying about with social-this and social-that. Yahoo! may pay $1 billion for Facebook. Google just paid $900 million to be the search pal at MySpace. Lots of companies are adding tagging and user profile features to sites. Hundreds of sites today offer either a few social features, or are overwhelmingly social in function, or have utilized social features to the point where they would not function without them (Wikipedia).

This is all part of the Web 2.0 phenom. User created content. Groups of folks connecting with like minds. Virtual worlds and MMOs. All of which is grand. But from a business and marketing perspective, you gots to know what you're looking to accomplish (goals), what you're willing to do to get there (resources), and how exactly you're going to make the trip (tools at your disposal). Being confused about any of these things will put you in a world of loss.

For example... if you think that adding some social features to your company's Web site will create community and make your customers into a big tribe of hand-holding advocates for your products and services... well... probably not. At this point, tagging, user pages, etc. are becoming de riggeur. Within a few years, not having those features on your site will be like not having a search box. In this case, playing into the "social game" may be a good idea, but don't get your expectations up to high. You're adding features to your pre-existing products/services. You're not enabling folks to find their dream spouses.

On the flip side... if you have a service that is truly social in function, like, be very, very careful about tacking on social features. Why? Because you may be enabling people to cut out the middle-man: you. What happens, for example, to the match-maker when the users become the match-makers? Well... er... Right. That's what happens. Bye-bye. It doesn't strike me as dumb in any way that eHarmony's site isn't very social. They're selling social. Giving it away in the site features wouldn't be very smrt.

I'm not saying there ain't good ways to combine the two; I'm just saying that you need to understand the difference. Know what you're selling vs. what is the value-add and what is the loss-leader. Know how social features might truly benefit your customers vs. just being a distraction. Keep an eye on when the socialness of your site may be allowing for interactions that are truly helpful -- uncovering new cross-selling ops, for example -- vs. when you may be enabling competitors to set up shop in your own backyard.

Social networking is good. Yes. I think so. But it is also very powerful. And that means it can bite the hands that feed it if not implemented carefully.

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