To give this article more long-term relevancy, I've categorized the trends I will discuss into interconnecting "ubertrends" -- the trends that will directly impact the emergence and growth of supporting micro-trends and how they might relate to your business. Make no mistake about it, there will be more progression as we move into the new Yyear and beyond -- and there is a vast beyond.
Ubertrends: Social monetization and social ubiquity
The escalating, evolving social media landscape is being driven largely by two interconnecting ubertrends: social monetization and social ubiquity. We define social monetization as social applications, programs, platforms, and features that drive revenue and ROI. Social ubiquity is the proliferation and convergence of the social web across platforms, devices, and channels. Privacy matters are also a critical trend to watch; as the web becomes more social, more personal data are being captured and shared with marketers eager to apply social data and profiles to marketing efforts -- which, in turn, could be cause for increased attention and concern.
While all this socializing is great fun, somewhere economics has to come into play. Certain social media platforms might attract critical mass, but sustainability and scalability can only be achieved when viable revenue streams are created. The focus on facilitating relationships and enabling transactions that enhance, complement, and integrate with the social experience has created extremely viable environments that connect socialization with commerce.
Micro-trend 1: Social commerce
Shopping, whether it is for a pair of pants, diapers, or seeds, fertilizer, and a plow on a virtual farm, is inherently social. And while social commerce is not new (in fact, I've written on the topic before for iMedia Connection), the trend is going to escalate and expand in 2011.
Social commerce with the end goal of increasing conversions, leads, and sales started to gain attention years ago with consumer reviews and began to escalate with the introduction of social shopping sites and functionality such as Facebook Connect. Storefronts on Facebook are swiftly escalating, and we recently saw this concept extracted to YouTube with what was described as the first "YouTique" launched at the end of September, by French Connection.
The connection of social media to sales, sales indicators, promotions, and other measurable or valued marketing and sales conversions -- including couponing -- is fueling the investment in social media as companies begin to prove the capability to drive commerce.
The ability to drive commerce and hence expand the potential advertising and marketing opportunities is also fueling the growth of location-based social networking, such as place-based saving apps like Shopkick and incentive-based offers from Foursquare. Currently advertisers can offer "deals" when someone checks in at a location near them, and Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley has said that the company is exploring models in which local store owners can offer incentives to users who tweet or check-in each time they frequent a location.
More is evolving on the check-in front and literally in stores. Shopkick describes itself as the first mobile app that gives consumers rewards and offers simply for walking into a store. The app allows you to collect "kickbucks" for checking in, as well as by scanning products in the store with your phone. This is a great promo and offer play for marketers, and current companies taking advantage include Best Buy, American Eagle Outfitters, Facebook (credits), and Sports Authority.
"Location is a key factor in the future of search, social, commerce, and media, among a lot of other things," Federated Media founder John Battelle has said. "Local is the most important signal to emerge in the database of intentions since the link."
Micro-trend 2: Virtual goods and currency
New media models are being built based on virtual goods and currency, currently connected directly to the increasingly popularity of social games. As a category, social gaming has grown incredibly quickly, becoming one of the dominant drivers of usage on Facebook. The current leader moving this trend is Zynga, which is building a new media model from micro-transactions -- millions of people buying seeds, sheep, tractors, weapons, skill points, and other virtual goods.
How big is this market? The Inside Network reported that the market for virtual goods in the United States was expected to grow to $2.1 billion in 2011, up from $1.6 billion in 2010.
From this trend, viable marketing opportunities are emerging, such as what Zynga calls "engagement ads." These are basically an exchange between a player and an advertiser, where players earn points or currency to raise or extend their game play in exchange for some brand-related activity like taking a quiz or sharing an ad on Facebook. Zynga has executed more than 100 campaigns of this sort for such brands as Apple, Visa, Microsoft, and Macy's; the company has also integrated with McDonald's, 7-Eleven, and others via the SVNetwork, which charges per engagement. It has been reported that this sort of "buy" will move to auction, so advertisers will be able to bid on an engagement based on demos and, potentially, other targeted attributes.
The power of gaming to drive revenue and marketing benefit for advertisers, as well as its increasing capacity to catch mass engagement, is not only driving new offerings but also new partnerships, startups, and other innovations. Over the course of 2011, we will see established players solidifying and refining their offers and extending their reach as a a host of new startups ride and build on this trend.
Another element shaping the virtual goods and currency trend is Facebook Credits. Facebook's move into a credits system of micropayments has the potential to become a trusted platform across the web for all different types of transactions. Other companies are clearly benefiting from this as well, including what is being called "monetization as a service" platform for apps, games, videos, and virtual goods and services. For example, companies such as PlayScan's Ultimate Pay draw from many payment options, including PayPal, pre-paid cards, and some credit cards based on location.
Virtual goods have also now moved to gift cards. Currently Target, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy all sell Facebook credit gift cards.
Micro-trend 3: Group buying
Groupon really set the stage to prove out the viability of the concept for group buying -- that is, offering steep discounts on goods and services if a number of folks sign up for the offer. Others include LivingSocial, Yipit, Dealon, and BuyWithMe. The ability to share deals and the capacity to drive revenue makes this sector sing, and this trend will likely continue to expand, with copycats, startups, big media players, and individual brands rolling out different and better variations this year.
Expect more publishers and media companies to either launch their own initiatives or partner with Groupon (or others) to capture the incremental revenue and other benefits this sector has to offer. For example, media companies that recently launched their own initiatives include AOL's group buying site, WOW, and The Knot's group-buying program at Deals.WeddingChannel.com. And on the brand side, Wal-Mart launched a new service called CrowdSaver, which is set up to offer an 18 percent discount on a plasma TV once it gets more than 5,000 likes.
Ubertrend: Social ubiquity
Social media is becoming ubiquitous across channels, platforms, programs, and all else digital. It will continue to converge across digital platforms, from websites to search, mobile, display media -- even TV and in-store. Partnerships and technology that can be integrated across platforms and within existing channels will fuel this continuance.
Recent notable developments include the convergence of social and search. Social media has for some time influenced search results, but the recent Facebook and Bing partnership takes it a few steps further to bring "like" data and profile searches to Bing (which, in turn, makes "like" campaigns that much more valuable).
Currently (where relevant), search results will feature a Facebook module that shows you what your friends have liked as it relates to that search. For marketers, this enhances and extends the value of the "like" to search, increasing the importance and focus on driving "likes."
The ability to parse social data into more relevant and useful search results will improve the value of social search, as well as drive new innovations and entries into this market. It is an interesting extrapolation and marketing enablement of the power of word of mouth.
This parsing of social data as it applies to digital marketing and advertising has also been seen in applying the social graph to display advertising targeting from such companies as Media6Degrees and XGraph.
Social is also converging in the display ad category, and we will see more socialization features and applications in creative and interactive executions. An example of this is in a recent Mountain Dew campaign featuring display ads that incorporate Facebook's "like" icon.
Email is also not excluded from this convergence. At some point, forward-to-a-friend and other sharing mechanisms became basic email marketing components. However, these functionalities have now escalated to enable further integration and connection with social networks and platforms. This can be particularly effective if tied to some incentive or promotion. For example, a recent campaign of ours included an email that went out to registrants about entering a sweepstakes. To enter, they simply click on a Facebook or Twitter "share" button in the email. Then, the sweepstakes can be further promoted via their friends and followers.
Another example of what convergence can bring is demonstrated by Premier Retail Networks' (PRN) recent partnership with LocaModa to create a cross-channel, place-based social media platform in supermarkets. This effort integrates social, mobile, and in-store, as well as the other potential channels used to promote it.
The result of all this is that there is almost no digital marketing effort where social media integration will not have an impact, from the upfront planning to execution and measurement. Indeed, social media will become so ubiquitous that it will struggle to be defined singularly. Media and marketing will be social.
Trend alert: Privacy
We all should be alert, with a level of reasonable concern, to the privacy trend. Privacy as an issue is not new to us -- data are key in digital, and as those data get more personal, it's a logical conclusion that protecting those personal data will become more of an issue.
There is way too much at stake here for the big players to let privacy short-change or disable their growing economic engines. As I see it shaping up, those with the resources will hire privacy teams to ensure that government, customers, and partners are comfortable with how they handle consumer information and other privacy related data.
It is our industry's collective responsibility to address this issue within our scope. We must implement and be guided by respect for our customers' privacy with appropriate measures, and choose our partners wisely. Caution is sensible, as social media breeds a number of startups and new businesses that might not have the technology or management resources to address these issues effectively.
What does this all mean for you and your efforts in 2011? Be aware of these trends, and focus on the potential opportunities and practical applications for your brand, agency, or business. Understand how to activate and support socialization -- based on the current technologies, platforms, and enablers -- and how that connects with your efforts. Perhaps even more importantly, focus on creating programs, features, and content -- generating ideas that are shareable and likeable -- that are inherently social and can fuel, activate, and ignite your efforts. Stop thinking about social media as a channel; think and act on media and marketing as social.
Denise E. Zimmerman is president and chief strategy officer at NetPlus Marketing Inc.
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