A social revolution is dictating dramatic changes in how brands run their websites and their businesses. With the advent of social feeds -- live streams of friends' activities shared on social networks like Facebook and Twitter -- consumers can more easily rely on trusted personal relationships to determine what's worthwhile to read, watch, play, and buy online. For many, the conclusion is startling: Referral traffic is as significant from social networks as it is from search engines, making social the next search.
For some companies this phenomenon is a surprise; for others it is an opportunity they are already looking to quickly leverage. But one thing is clear: Driving socially referred traffic is taking its place alongside SEO and SEM as a critical area of marketing analysis and investment for any business operating on the web today.
The next phase of this social revolution is taking place not just on the major social networks but across the entire web, as businesses from media and entertainment to ecommerce focus on promoting social activity on their own sites to increase and influence socially referred traffic. Not only is the volume potential enormous, but its word-of-mouth nature also means socially referred traffic is of high quality. The benefits of this new social initiative are immediate and powerful. Companies -- like the Huffington Post -- that have made an investment in connecting their sites to multiple social networks and that have made it easy for users to share content and experiences are quickly surpassing their established but socially less-optimized rivals in traffic growth, traffic quality, and time spent on their site.
To capitalize on this phase of the social revolution, companies need to optimize their connections with the social web, continually enhance their users' on-site social experiences, and analyze the results to improve their social business strategy and implementation. This process, called on-site social optimization, is emerging as the next big marketing frontier, and how companies execute on it will be a major competitive factor.
Three steps to generating social traffic
On-site social optimization is the process of actively driving social participation by users on your site. This includes the number of users who register using a social network identity, the amount of content and activity shared to social networks, and the amount of time spent engaging with site content together with an existing network of friends.
A socially optimized website can increase site traffic from social networks, drive sales revenue, improve search engine rankings, increase brand or product awareness, and reduce customer acquisition costs. In short, the decision is no longer about whether to socialize your site -- it's how to do it in a way that fits your business strategy and achieves your ROI goals.
An effective on-site social optimization strategy consists of three key components: social connectivity, the connected experience, and social analytics. Let's look at each one and how it can support your business objectives.
Step 1: Adding social connectivity
The first step in developing and implementing a strategy is to connect your site to the social web in a way that maximizes the number of potential participants. Fortunately, the major social networks see the value in this as well and have provided mechanisms enabling websites to integrate with them directly. These APIs are sets of routines or data structures that allow websites to get information from, and send data to, each social network.
Facebook Connect (now branded "Facebook for Websites") was one of the first APIs offered by a major social network to third-party websites, and it continues to be the most prominent service, as well as a cornerstone of any serious connectivity strategy. But don't miss an opportunity by connecting your site only to Facebook; Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, MySpace, and Google, among others, also provide APIs, enabling online businesses to connect site users to whichever social network those users prefer.
Giving your users a wide range of social identity choices is good business. Research has shown that providing multiple social network connection options increases the number of participating users, as compared with a single option, and that Facebook typically comprises approximately 50 percent of connections (Gigya customer data, Q4 2009).
The chart below illustrates the mix of connections on PGA.com for the live chat experience it offered to fans as part of the webcast of the PGA tour championship in September 2009.
The mix of connections does vary by audience. MTV runs a similar chat for webcasts of its hit show "16 and Pregnant," where the connection mix is 40 percent Yahoo, 29 percent MySpace, 24 percent Facebook, and 7 percent Twitter.
While Facebook and the other popular networks provide powerful connectivity options for online business, working with them does pose a few challenges:
Diverse APIs make implementation complicated. Each API has different integration requirements and different core features. For example, even though the Twitter and Yahoo APIs are based on OAuth, implementation for each is significantly different and requires new work for site developers. Sites that want to integrate multiple social APIs may need additional expertise and resources.
Managing updates to APIs is time-consuming. API providers, including Facebook, make changes frequently, requiring sites using these APIs to constantly maintain and make updates to their code and website design each time a new version is released, typically monthly.
New APIs continue to emerge, compounding complexity. As additional social networks and identity providers open up, sites that want to give users choice will need to integrate them. Sites need ongoing technical support to integrate and manage new APIs. For example, Yahoo made its APIs available in early 2009, LinkedIn in late 2009. Twitter announced its first API in early 2009 and a more feature-rich version in early 2010.
API providers do not offer dedicated support. API providers only offer self-service support. While there are several resources for developers on each social networking site's developers' wiki, there are no in-person support services available. As a result, companies seeking to adopt without the help of a trusted partner might be left in a precarious position if things go awry.
Step 2: Enhancing the connected experience
Connecting your site to the social web is just the beginning. Unlike traditional web marketing, social interaction offers a unique twist: You must optimize the connected experience by designing and refining your user experience for the maximum amount of socially connected participation. This means enabling your users to register with a social network identity, to share your content with their social networks, and to interact with friends while on your website.
To drive quality referral traffic from social networks, site owners should focus on optimizing the quality and quantity of content and activity shared by users. Best practices for sharing include:
Keep users on your site for the entire sharing process. The highest-performing sites open a sharing dialog box right on the page with the content the user wishes to share. The new APIs create a pipeline that provides permission to share content without leaving the site. Contrast this with the first-generation sharing technologies such as AddThis or ShareThis, which open a new browser window or tab, taking the user off of your page. This decreases sharing conversion rates and risks the user not returning to your site.
Build sharing into the overall user activity flow. Just as removing unnecessary clicks is a critical part of any website optimization, removing clicks from the sharing process wherever possible increases the amount of completed shares. For example, a site should prompt users to share with friends after they leave a comment or take a poll, making it a seamless part of the activity stream, rather than expecting users to click a separate "share" button. This increases the likelihood that consumers will share your website with their friends on social networks.
Allow users to sign-in with social network identities. Too often sites have separate and unrelated systems for registration, sharing, commenting, and other social features. If you know who a user is, and what social network that person prefers, don't make them authenticate through a separate system before sharing. Not only is it a bad user experience, but you lose important history for your users. Allowing users to sign-in with existing identities also increases registration conversion rates.
Make it easy for users to simultaneously share to multiple networks. While providing users with choice drives greater participation, enabling them to simultaneously share with friends on multiple networks can exponentially increase the audience potential for your site's content.
Intuit has done exactly that with this year's TurboTax product and supporting advertising campaigns. When TurboTax users finished their taxes, they were prompted to connect with a social network identity -- Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace -- to write a review and then to "brag" to their network of friends that they were done -- and who wouldn't want to celebrate that fact!
Why is social sharing from within TurboTax's own products and sites an important initiative for Intuit? It comes down to ROI. According to Intuit's