Megatrends Part II: Social interactions

Posted by Trent Mankelow in statistics and trends on October 30, 2009

In this second part of a four part series, we are looking at social interactions.

The participatory web

The biggest difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is the change from static content to communities and relationships. Millions of words have already been written about the participatory web from Time naming ‘You’ as its person of the year back in 2006, through to Facebook breaking through the 300 million user mark just last month.

Unfortunately, the message isn’t getting through to many organisations. They say that they want a conversation with their customers, but the kind of conversation they want isn’t very real.

For a start, real conversation isn’t one-way. Blogs shouldn’t be used to push press releases into the world. They should be used to ask questions, engage customers and seek feedback like Nokia does.

Real conversation also feels like you are talking to a real person with personality, opinions, and emotions. Would your organisation write a blog post entitled “Sometimes we suck“, like Flickr did?

The courage to publicly engage customers in real conversation has to be driven from the very top, and it doesn’t happen very often. You see it at online shoe retailer Zappos, where their CEO has nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers (the kind of numbers usually reserved for Lance Armstrong or CNN). Locally you see it at RaboPlus, where their General Manager is the one who’s answering all the customer queries. But these examples are pretty rare.

But, to be honest blogs aren’t really where it’s at. The simple fact is that fewer than a third of us read them (and most of those are in the younger age ranges).

Social interaction platforms
I think the really interesting stuff is when organisations provide a platform for social interaction.

I’m not talking about social networks so much, although their numbers continue to rise (the 169 social networking websites listed at Wikipedia include a site for knitting and crochet and there are even anti-social networks cropping up).

Providing a social interaction platform is more about helping customers connect with one another and with their own data. For example, on Delicious you can see how many other people bookmarked the same page you did, and see what else these people bookmarked.

One of the simplest ways of providing a platform is to aggregate people’s behaviour as they use your site, and then show the data back to them. Flickr uses the community to figure out how interesting a photo is, based on the number of people who view a photo, bookmark it, comment on it, and a bunch of other (proprietary) things. There are no human editors involved. The community, you and I, indirectly help to decide which of these photos are interesting. We add value to the site just by using it.

Mint takes this a step further by helping users to gather insights about themselves by comparing their finances to a group of other users in a similar life situation. How much are your paying in car insurance compared to others? What about weekly groceries? This makes the site extremely sticky – you want to keep coming back to compare yourself to your peer group.

Social psychology
Another trend we are seeing on the rise is the use of social psychology and game theory to persuade us, or to help us learn.

For example, when we publicly share our goals we are more likely to follow through on them. At SmartyPig they’ve taken advantage of this to create a 21st-century version of a piggy bank that allows you to set up a savings account with an automatic monthly contribution. But the trick is that you can share goals online with family and friends, who can also contribute to your account.

Nintendo’s Your Life Rhythm is a pedometer that is designed to get us off our backsides. Their trick is that the pedometer comes as an add-on to their Nintendo DS portable gaming system. Yep, walking around is now a computer game. But when you add in social aspects, and some element of competition, chances are that we will walk around more.

A more mature version of this idea is the Nike+. It uses a sensor in a running shoe to communicate with an iPod. You can track calories burned, distance, pace and time.

That’s all pretty cool. But where it goes to the next level is when you upload your data to the Nike+ website. I can challenge other Nike+ users to a race, see what kind of times other people in Wellington are running, discuss which Powersong I prefer on the forums (apparently Pump It by the Black Eyed Peas is the number one Powersong).

This is Data (it tells me that I most often run on a Wednesday), this is a Service, this is a Device (a sensor and an iPod), and it is most definitely Social Interaction.  That’s the thing with these megatrends we’ve been discussing – it’s often hard to unpick the threads on some of these things.

Organisations who understand how to facilitate conversations online can’t help but be more successful. How can you get your customers to participate more? With you? With each other? What can you do to help facilitate conversations? I’d love to hear your feedback.

In the next article we’ll cover Part III: Services.

October 30, 2009. Posted by in statistics and trends.

Sign up to our email newsletter

Sign up to receive regular updates on our latest projects, research, and other news in the world of usability.

Twitter updates

Optimal Workshop

Optimal Workshop builds tools for UX professionals.