Fast Company

Pew Study: Emboldened Customers Populate Social Networks

New research was released by Pew Internet Research Center saying that 64% of online adults, which extrapolates to 50% of the adult population, use social networks.

That's mind-boggling to me. What's even more interesting? There is no difference in social network use by age, gender, ethnicity, or income level. Most of us, 87%, use Facebook. 10% are on LinkedIn, a percentage I thought would be higher, and 11% are on Twitter. MySpace, although declining, is about the same as LinkedIn and Twitter.

This represents a remarkable societal behavior change from private to public, secretive to social.

There is almost nothing that hasn't been shared on some social network, not only by unwary lovesick teens, but by the rest of us. People with cancer are pouring their hearts out to strangers online, and you find out about new babies on Facebook and deaths on Twitter. I can't think of the last time I found about a death by any other source than Twitter: Whitney Houston. Gary Carter. Anthony Shadid. R.I.P. says the final tweet about a life, struggling to summarize it in 140 characters.

I am by no means neutral about all this. Quite the contrary, I am wildly in favor of living in public, despite its obvious downsides. When the Internet came alive for me in the 90s, (my first business web site was in 1994, and I got on email at the end of the 80s), my first thoughts were "we will all be connected now, and there will be world peace."

Fat chance.

Probably we've had more frequent dust ups and wars since we came online. We can stalk each other now, and countries can have dramatically better intelligence, but it doesn't make our relationships, personal or national, any better. It just makes them different; of necessity.

What's happening on the consumer side and in politics is echoed in the business community, where old command-and-control infrastructure is being replaced by networks, both internal and external, that are trying to reach beyond traditional silos. There's a coming movement called "social business," about which I've been studying and writing lately, and it focuses on the forced engagement with customers that's facilitated by social media. No business can ignore its customers--many have tried, most of them used to, but all of them are now tryingto figure it out. Bank of America can't charge a customer $5.00 to use a debit card, because it will provoke a firestorm of public criticism. Customers occupy both Wall Street and Main Street.

It's going to be as much fun watching business change in the next ten years as it has been watching social networks grow over the previous ten. As near as I can tell, IBM is a leader in moving its business toward social, as is Dell. Consumer brands like Pepsi and Southwest Airlines are also out front. In other industries, like health care and education, change is being driven by online competitors to old business models (Khan Academy in education, Patients Like Me in health care).

And I'm not talking about just marketing or PR departments, either. I think we are going to get changes in SEC disclosure rules for public companies, even new ways to conduct the business of HR and the profession of law. I always see the next wave out in the distance, and this is it. It's "social-this-and-social-that," all driven by the social networks.

Ten years ago, it was ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) now it is Human Capital and Customer Relations Management, and tomorrow the shoe may well be on the other foot: as Doc Searls of Harvard's Berkman Institute says, we will live in a world of Vendor Relationship Management -- one in which we tell our vendors when we want to buy, what we want to see and do, and the vendors are responsible to us.

The principles are these:

VRM development work is based on the belief that free customers are more valuable than captive ones--to themselves, to vendors, and to the larger economy. To be free:

1. Customers must enter relationships with vendors as independent actors.

2. Customers must be the points of integration for their own data.

3. Customers must have control of data they generate and gather. This means they must be able to share data selectively and voluntarily.

4. Customers must be able to assert their own terms of engagement.

5. Customers must be free to express their demands and intentions outside of any one company's control.

Won't that be fun?

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