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In an internet age that has become ever more socially-saturated, devising and delivering something that offers true differentiation is becoming increasingly hard.  ‘Pheed’ is the latest social network to launch and whilst the platform itself doesn’t appear to offer anything ‘new’ per se, its business approach is tapping into an increasingly more visible model: paid-for content.

Cited by some commentators as the ‘new Twitter’ (a fact that has allegedly seen Twitter revoke people’s ability to sign into Pheed using Twitter credentials), Pheed offers users the usual range of updates, photos, streams etc. that have become de rigeur for social network platforms.  On Pheed however, users have the ability to charge people to subscribe to their ‘pheeds’.

Of course, no-one in their right minds would pay hard-earned money to listen to my inane mutterings (there goes my retirement plan), but celebrities?  Public figures?  Content producers?  Pheed differentiates itself from the opposition by establishing itself as a monetised platform with a business model right from the beginning.

Of course, this will raise the question of whether celebrities actually want to engage and share content with their fans, or use ‘social media’ as a tool through which to ‘sell’ their brand and generate profit from their fans.  Whether you choose to pay to subscribe to David Guetta ($4.99 pcm) or Chris Brown ($2.99) is a matter of personal preference.  But in a world that grows more digital by the day, is this a glimpse of the future?

On July 2nd, News International introduced a paywall for the online editions of The Times and The Sunday Times: a bold move that many claimed would fail.  Would people pay for news that they could get for free elsewhere?  The figures can be interpreted in different ways: whilst The Times Online saw figures to its online homepage decline from 21 million to 2.7 million in the first three months after the paywall was introduced, this still showed that 2.7 million of these pageviews were from paying customers.

Spotify – a brand and platform that I love dearly – launched as a free, legal platform to stream music, supported by advertising.  Yet this model alone was not enough to support the business, which was posting huge losses.  The introduction of a tiered, paid-for subscription model, was floated to generate more revenue for the company.  But would consumers pay for content that they could feasibly get for free elsewhere?  Again, the answer appeared to be yes: as of August 2012, Spotify had 4 million paying subscribers, generating a revenue of €20 million per month.

Even as recently as a few years ago, digital was seen as a ‘free extension of print and physical media’.  But as more and more content producers look to digitise their offerings (The 80-year old US magazine ‘Newsweek’ will cease print publication in December this year ), revenue models have to change.

Netflix?  LoveFilm?  iPad editions of magazines?  Over the past 18 months, consumers have reacted positively to premium and paid-for content; yet until now, this has been entrenched outside of social media and firmly within ‘digital media’.  So will Pheed change this?  And if so, what are the ramifications for the big players?

Although Facebook claims it will never charge for access to its site, could it?  Would you pay a small subscription fee to access Facebook or Twitter each month?  There has been a lot of criticism of Facebook’s recent ramping-up of its advertising activity.  Would a subscription model offer consumers a different experience?  Could social networks become paid-for, media platforms rather than ad-supported channels?  And if so, what does this mean for brands?

Pheed raises some interesting questions.  Is it ‘the new Twitter’?  Time will tell.  But even in its infancy as a social media platform, Pheed has got noticed for addressing an area that arguably, Twitter (lack of monetisation) and Facebook (consumer apathy at ad overload) are struggling with.  

Are subscriptions the future of social media?

Why Facebook Should Search Outside of Search…

The news that Facebook is considering a venture into search has sparked much debate in tech circles.  Since its very inception, Facebook has striven to integrate itself ever more visibly into every facet of our lives; its recent IPO and subsequent floatation on the stock market accelerating this desire for ubiquitous omnipresence even further.  But are plans to enter the search market one step too far for the social networking behemoth?

My initial reaction was that this is a step too far.  Although no technology company is ever untouchable (look at the declining fortunes of Nokia), Google’s dominance of the search market and the web economy shows no signs of slowing.

This venture into search actually parallels Google’s avenue into social media: Google Plus was launched last year in an attempt to leverage the company’s ownership of search and content and thus grab a slice of an extremely lucrative social pie.  But even the most ardent Google fan would have to admit that this venture has not been met with the success the search giant would have hoped for.

As of September 2012, Google Plus boasts 400m accounts, which, at half of Facebook’s membership, gained in only a year, is a staggering achievement.  But the truth is that many of these accounts have simply been given automatically to people who use various other Google products, such as Gmail – and this may go some way to explaining the low engagement rate.

And this is not to say that Google Plus is a failure: it has a beautiful UI, its integration with search results allows us to see content publicly ‘+1’d’ in search results and features such as hangouts and circles have been lauded by many tech commentators and consumers alike.  But despite this, the platform has simply failed to inspire the wider general public in the way that Facebook has.

So if Google, a company with almighty clout, has ‘failed’ to dent Facebook’s ownership of social, what makes Facebook think that it can take on search?

There’s a lot of compelling arguments to suggest that Facebook is in a good position to do just that.  Search links people with content, and Facebook is one of the biggest sources of content generation on the Internet.  Facebook is a visible part of our everyday lives and a digital destination that we use frequently throughout the day.  Adding a service such as search makes it easier for users, right?

I’m not so sure.

You see, for me, one of the big appeals of social media is its serendipitous nature.  I like browsing through my feeds, stumbling over amusing photos that friends have shared on Facebook; reading an article that a colleague has posted on Twitter; discovering some amazing research from a contact on LinkedIn.  Browsing and discovering are wonderful features of social media – and browsing is very different to search.

When we search for something, we actively know what we want; what we are looking for.  And tools such as Google and Bing serve that need perfectly.  When I log into Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, I don’t go there because I’m after a specific piece of information – I go there to discover.  And that’s crucial.

Social media connects me with content, which, granted, is exactly what search does.  But when I visit my social channels, I’m engaging in a journey of discovery.  I don’t know whether I’ll stumble across a fascinating piece of research shared by a colleague, or a photograph of a cat dressed in a cowboy outfit posted by a sibling.  If I knew exactly what content that I wanted to consume, the chances are that I would have turned to Google to seek out my insightful research article.  Or cat picture…

You could argue that Facebook is in a position to offer both – serendipitous moments of discovery shared by friends, as well as providing a search feature.  But, in my opinion, Facebook needs to be very careful that it doesn’t dilute its proposition as the world’s foremost social networking platform – which it is – by trying to model itself into a sole hub for people’s entire internet experience.

For me, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google – all of these channels have been so successful because they own their particular features – and are damn good at what they do.  Trying to shoehorn a service offered ten times better elsewhere leaves a company in danger of diluting the core proposition that made it so successful in the first place.

And for me, that’s why I believe that Facebook should search outside of search for any new additions to its popular service.

Instagram: Why Digital Darwinism is a Good Thing

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Manchester’s Northern Quarter is up in arms.  The denizens of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Dalston are revolting.  This Easter weekend, hipsters nationwide are NOT happy bunnies.  Why?  Because Instagram, darling of artisans, students and cool people worldwide, has been snapped up by Facebook for $1 billion.

Despite Instagram having a userbase of over 30 MILLION users (thanks in no small part to the recent release of the Android version), the app is apparently a sacred space for ‘cool’ people to attain subcultural capital and rebel against large, corporate digital behemoths vying for our digital data.  The app allows users to take photos, apply filters and be truly unique (as another 29,999,999 people).

While I’m clearly being facetious, the backlash against Instagram’s ‘sell-out’ has been surprising.  People have been using and enjoying this FREE service for a year and a half, whilst 13 guys in Silicone Valley have worked hard to support and develop a great little app for everyone to use.  For free.  Yet their payday has come, their hard work has been rewarded, yet suddenly they are the bad guys.  Why?

YouTube was started by two chaps in their garage – you can’t get much more raw, authentic and anti-corporate than that.  However, Google acquired YouTube and over the past few years, the service has developed into a mainstay of popular culture, so much so that we now have TELEVISION shows ABOUT YouTube clips (take a bow ‘Rude Tube’).

However, people were against YouTube being taken over at the time.  They claimed, just as they are doing with Instagram, that ‘they like things how they are and don’t want the service they know and love to be changed’.  Imagine if YouTube hadn’t evolved?  Imagine if smartphones, nay, MOBILE phones hadn’t evolved – we wouldn’t enjoy half the convenience, information and communications benefits that we do now.  It is with noted irony that people moaning about Instagram selling out to a ‘corporate’ are doing so on their Apple / Google mobile devices.  Hmm.

So while I argue that progress is a good and necessary thing in the digital space, what exactly is this progress?  What does this purchase of Instagram represent?

Without a shadow of doubt, Facebook is making a shrewd acquisition into the mobile space.  Instagram is the world’s largest mobile-based social network – fact.  Mobile is an exploding area in digital communications, simply because smartphone capabilities are evolving at such a rate – and this means this is a huge area of focus for businesses, brands and services.

Up to know, Facebook has enjoyed phenomenal usage on mobile devices thanks to its iPhone and Android app.  However, Facebook has also admitted that it has struggled to monetise and capitalise on this huge surge in mobile usage.  The purchase of Instagram may not immediately address this, since the app makes no money (at present) – however, it is clear that Facebook is moving with the times – and that means really moving into the mobile space.

So, there’s no doubt that Facebook will look to develop Instagram.  This is inevitable.  However, contrary to hipsters’ fears, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  If something is good, people will flock to use it in large numbers.  Large numbers = significant interest from big companies.  It’s a natural digital evolution.  But this does not mean that the service, or indeed, the CONTENT, need change.

After all, just think where we’d be if YouTube was still stuck in a garage.  Or for that matter, if Steve Jobs had not decided to make an Apple phone.

Progress is a good thing – especially in the digital sector.

(I may not be a hipster, but I do have a beard and work in digital – which means I love Instagram too.  The shot at the top of this post was taken by me, using pre-Facebook Instagram, this Monday.)

Things are getting Pinteresting…

The public’s appetite for new and innovative social networks shows no signs of abating, with Pinterest rapidly emerging as ‘the’ social media phenomenon of early 2012.

Between September and December 2011, unique users on the site grew by 400%.  As of February 2012, the site has 10.4 million registered users and an average of 2 million users per day.  And its explosive growth has been the fastest of any independent website of all time, taking less than nine months to reach that impressive 10 million users mark.

So what is Pinterest?  At base, Pinterest is a ‘visual pinboard’, allowing users to ‘pin’ images onto ‘boards’ on their profiles, according to themes, groups and passions.  According to the site:

Pinterest lets you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web. People use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and organize their favourite recipes.  Best of all, you can browse pinboards created by other people. Browsing pinboards is a fun way to discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests.

And perhaps this description goes some way to explaining the unique gender demographics of this network.  Statistics show that 97% of Pinterest’s Facebook fans are women, a demographic split that is replicated fairly accurately on the main Pinterest site.  And these women have been adopting Pinterest in their droves…

Between September and December 2011, unique users on the site grew by 400%.  As of February 2012, the site has 10.4 million registered users and an average of 2 million users per day.  And its explosive growth has been the fastest of any independent website of all time, taking less than nine months to reach that impressive 10 million users mark.

What does this mean for brands?

Needless to say, the sheer number of consumers flocking to Pinterest makes the platform an attractive proposition for brands and businesses.  Add to this the fact that Pinterest currently drives more traffic to third-party websites than Google + and LinkedIn combined, and you can quickly see a huge opportunity for the right brands in this innovative new space.

Indeed, many of the world’s biggest brands have flocked to Pinterest already – but how are they using it?

Clothing and ‘lifestyle’ brands such as GAP have been quick to jump on the Pinterest bandwagon, creating mood boards that reflect ‘inspiration’ for their latest collections and ‘denim icons’.  What does this do?  It allows GAP to curate a broad visual identity for itself, building lifestyle and aspirational messaging into its branding simply through subtle image association.  A well-executed and proven method to build on a brand identity through a popular new platform.

Other businesses have taken a more commercial approach to Pinterest, using its visual appeal to showcase products in a way that consumers find easy and appealing.  Tarte Cosmetics (in the US) uses its Pinterest boards to display its broad product ranges by category, offering a brief description with each picture.  Due to Pinterest’s simplicity, all users have to do is click on the desired image and they are taken directly to the product page on the company’s e-commerce platform.

Brands can also offer users the chance to pin their images onto the brands boards.  This is yet another example of social crowd-sourcing that allows consumers to feel closer to, and valued by, the brands they interact with as part of their world.

The Future?

There’s no doubt that Pinterest is big business – and here to stay.  It undoubtedly has strengths in certain key areas and naturally appeals to certain demographics that are visual-led, for example fashion, photography, retail, clothing, make-up etc.  These prominent ‘sectors’ also explain why Pinterest is such a female-dominated platform.

However, the advent of ‘digital snacking’ has seen users shift towards visual images and short copy as a preferred means of digital consumption.  Pinterest highlights this shift and brands would be wise to consider how their business could utilise this latest craze.

The Digital Landscape in 2012

There’s no questioning that the pace of digital technology (and indeed, its subsequent adoption by consumers) means that each year, digital practitioners and marketing types face a new set of channels, mediums, challenges and of course, possibilities..

 Whilst I am loathe to add to the glut of run-of-the-mill, obvious ‘digital predictions’ currently swilling around the Internet’s waters (especially given we’re now well into January already!), I feel compelled to jot down my thoughts on the digital year ahead. 

In no particular order, here is what I envisage the digital landscape to consist of in 2012, providing the Mayans weren’t right and we’re not all doomed of course…

 1. Mobile

 Mobile is one of those mediums that seems to crop up in these ‘prediction’ lists annually now, but 2012 really will be different.  There’s absolutely no question that the advent of smartphones has triggered a fundamental shift in how society communicates with brands and each other, as well as with the world around them.

 Sources vary, but latest figures put UK smartphone ownership at around 36% of the adult population, up from 27% from August 2011 – and this will only continue to grow in 2012.  Add this to the fact that consumers are becoming more mobile-savvy (40% now know what a QR code is) and using mobiles when shopping and you quickly realise that we’re on the cusp of some big things for the medium. 

 What does this mean for marketing communications?  Quite simply, the ability to reach our target audience with timely locations in the geographical locations we deem effective.  This could be product information, conversion tools, offers or CRM information.  But the advanced nature of mobile phones, coupled with the increasing adoption of mobile internet and geo-location services spells big things for the mobile future.

 2. Social CRM

 Thankfully, the social media debate has (seemingly) finally been put to bed.  It’s here, it’s lasted, it’s not a fad and its benefits are clear for even the most ardent sceptic to see.  However, businesses are still looking for ways to quantify their investment and maximise their efforts – and why not?

 Social media analytics packages are now reaching advanced levels and social media’s integration with other digital channels (e-commerce, websites etc.) has allowed businesses to see the value in joined-up strategic execution.  So the question is no longer ‘should we do social media’ but rather ‘how well do we do it’?

 In 2012, I believe that more and more businesses will start analysing their social media activity and joining up the dots on a consumer’s digital journey.  We can collect rich data from consumers through their digital activity, whether mobile, online or indeed, on social media, so working out ways to offer intrinsic value to these customers and segment them through social networks remains a powerful concept – and one that we will see integrated into business in 2012.   

 3. Augmented Reality

 I believe that 2012 will also be a hugely exciting year for augmented reality.  Whilst digital marketing geeks such as myself have been bouncing around with excitement at the possibilities of AR for a few years now, it’s only literally in the last few months that we have seen working examples wheeled out to the public in high-profile marketing campaigns.

 Just as 2011 saw consumers starting to engage with QR codes that brands sprinkled liberally on every press ad and piece of packaging they could, 2012 will see consumers starting to engage with augmented reality executions.

 For a young technology, I believe that the coming 12 months will see the majority of AR provide ‘brand theatre’ and add some fun, excitement and innovation to marketing campaigns.  It’s a fantastically creative medium and one that holds limitless possibilities for marketing campaigns, making AR a big thing to watch in 2012.

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 So there we have it – I could list plenty of other areas I believe 2012 holds big things for, but shall stop (for now) at these three core examples. 

 Every year in digital is fast-paced, challenging, fun and packed with learnings, opportunities and incredible executions – and 2012 will be no different.

What do you think?  Do you agree with my list?  Have I missed anything?  Leave your comments below!

Social Peacocks: Social Media Display and Brand Affiliation in 2011

Back in 1959, Erving Goffman published a book entitled ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’, which, amongst other things, explored the theme that we ‘perform’ different roles dependent on specific ‘stages’ and situations we find ourselves in.

Although Goffman’s lauded name has become synonymous with this sociological concept, this is a theme that has run throughout history. Plato spoke of the ‘stage of human life’, whilst Shakespeare penned the pertinent phrase “all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.

It’s now 2011 and with the advent of social media, the concept of displaying ourselves on a stage has become more pertinent than ever before. We live in a world that is permanently switched-on; ever-connected. Sharing all aspects of our lives, from big news such as engagements and pregnancies to banal trivia such as what we are watching on TV, sharing on the social stage has become very much de rigeur.

With over 600,000,000 active users, Facebook has rapidly risen in less than a decade to become arguably one of the biggest ‘stages’ in modern life. Our social circles are no longer limited to close friends we see regularly; instead we can now ‘perform’ to old school ‘friends’ (I use the term loosely), casual acquaintances and old work colleagues as part of an ever-increasing audience viewing multiple ‘stages’.

But over the past two years, social media marketing has also made significant strides, with brands and businesses seeping osmotically into our online lives. The updates we receive from friends and family are now intertwined with communications from retailers, car companies, food brands, charities and local restaurants – in short, anyone that we actively choose to ‘like’.

Whilst recent research shows that many users are motivated to ‘like’ brands and businesses for the chance to win prizes and receive exclusive discounts, research has also started to highlight the growing trend in ‘liking’ brands in order to visibly display association with that brand to a peer network on social media channels.

This form of ‘display to convey’ is nothing new: take coffee tables adorned with meticulously arranged ‘high-brow’ literature / magazines; t-shirts adorned with branded logos; carrier bags displaying which shops we have just frequented. All around us, we display our consumer preferences through related collateral, be this actual or aspirational.

And this age-long trend has continue into the social sphere. Whether it’s using geo-locations to ‘check-in’ at a trendy bar or ‘liking’ a fashionable brand on Facebook (Apple, Aston Martin, Tag Heur et al), we are now sharing more and more of our consumer choices with a much wider audience. Why?

I conducted some research in various LinkedIn groups, asking the question, “Why do you click ‘like’ on a brand’s Facebook page?”, which threw up (amongst others) the two following responses:

“I already feel a big connection with the brand and want to let people know I like it.”

“The reason I did [like a page] was much more related to the identification I have with the brand rather than a special feeling […] they are a reference for me.”

Even from these two ad hoc quotes, we can glean that social media users (which in 2011, comprises the vast majority of us) are building, constructing and displaying their chosen ‘identities’ on one of the world’s biggest stages. Humans have always desired to display a side to themselves, be it status, wealth or sexuality – however the advent of display in social media has given rise to what I call, the social peacock.

I’m not for one moment claiming that this is the sole reason for consumers to ‘like’ a brand’s page. As previously stated, material incentives such as prizes and discounts are huge ‘like-drivers’. Social channels have opened up another level to customer service, with dedicated teams on Twitter, Facebook and Skype becoming standard practice for companies in the Utilities sector.

But for many social media users, ‘liking’ brands has become a way to collect badges and trophies that speak about them as a person; it allows them to project a desired image of themselves and their life choices. Like it or not, we live in a global economy driven by capitalism, and much of our perceived identity is intrinsically linked to the brands (as opposed to products) that we consume.

Who knows what the future may hold, especially since one of the rising trends in social media is the focus on local communities and niche ‘pockets’ of users sharing niche interests. But for now, clicking ‘like’ on a brand’s Facebook page remains very much a way of conveying choice, status and image – and marketers would do well to ensure that ‘social peacocks’ are one of the key groups they focus on.

BeKnown: will it fail to change BeHaviour?

Since this weekend, my various social media channels have been ‘buzzing’ (pun very much intended) with ‘BeKnown’, a new Facebook app from Monster, one of the UK’s largest job boards.

The premise of the BeKnown app is simple: provide a professional networking platform within the most popular social network platform in the world, making professional use of your ‘friends’ and their connections.  Put simply, Monster is attempting to recreate LinkedIn within Facebook.



The accompanying promotional material claims that being able to use Facebook for both personal AND professional networking provides users with the convenience of having one place in which to conduct all their digital networking – and I can certainly see this.

Those who fear mixing their personal, private selves with a professional persona need not worry; BeKnown only allows connections to see the information contained within the actual application, thus avoiding exposing your professional contacts to photos of your boozy stag do in Blackpool.

So in theory, a comprehensive professional app within Facebook’s walls sounds like a great way to network with professionals and utilise your friends’ networks too, right?  I have my reservations.

As a digital marketer, I know from first-hand experience how challenging it is to change customer behaviour and pertinently, I believe that BeKnown is attempting to do just that.  Despite Facebook’s position as THE poster boy for social media, LinkedIn is by no means a small player, with over 150m members.  LinkedIn has grown organically over the last few years to become the de facto place for job seekers, networkers and recruiters to engage in professional activity.

Which leads me onto my second point: if we are to successfully change consumer behaviour, then we need to offer compelling reasons to do so – and as yet, BeKnown offers nothing different to LinkedIn.  I understand that these are very early days, but everything appears to be a carbon copy of LinkedIn, for example ‘Endorsements’ instead of ‘Recommendations’; ‘connections’, ‘experience’ etc. – there’s no dynamic unique selling point that makes me think, ‘wow, I NEED to be on BeKnown!’

Finally, BeKnown offers a ‘gamification’ element, with the issue of badges for certain tasks.  Gamification has become prevalent in social media society – apps such as Foursquare and GetGlue allow users to ‘compete’ with each other for points and badge unlocks, conveying social prestige and social currency.  But in professional terms, this aspect has been relatively untested.  One could argue that issuing users with ‘stickers’ for various professional achievements could in fact ‘cheapen’ those feats.

It’s very early days yet, and Monster seems to have invested a lot of work into a slick, well-functioning app.  However, asking users to completely change their behaviour and switch their allegiance from a very established professional platform in LinkedIn to Facebook, which has traditionally been focused on the personal rather than the professional, could be tricky indeed.

Only time will tell…