You would be hard-pressed to find anything that has changed the way we communicate and share information more than social networking sites. No matter how much change these sites have spurred, the world of social networking has been undergoing its own overhaul in 2011. The introduction of Google+ and f8 caused plenty of discussion and, in some cases, public outcry. Myspace drew new interest from investors with a push to become an "entertainment portal," but 2012 just might be the year we find out who the winners and losers of the battle may be.
"Facebook is like scrapbooking for your life," says David Catalano, president and co-founder of Modea Corp., a digital advertisement agency in Virginia. Facebook and Google+ have become places where users establish virtual identities. What they like and what they follow becomes part of how they advertise themselves to their communities. Brands now have an opportunity to become part of that identity by creating smart, creative content.
f8 has two significant changes: timeline and new verbs. The timeline is a real-time stream that shows a user's network activity. This change is an effort to stay relevant with users and to differentiate Facebook from less-successful social media platforms such as Myspace. "Myspace was the first mover, so everyone flocked to that," says Catalano. "They didn't focus on the user. They allowed for this idea of self-expression to go too far with music playing on everyone's profiles. It turned into this disgusting, crowded place." Facebook understands the need to simplify and prioritize the user experience by creating social tools users enjoy, such as the timeline.
That is, if users enjoy them. A survey of 2,000 teens aged 14-17 conducted by Mr. Youth, a digital advertising firm in New York, found that 45% of teens think the new features make Facebook's homepage overwhelming and distracting. Thirty-one percent of teens say they try to ignore the timeline, which makes them feel like stalkers, and 25% say they plan to move to Google+ to escape f8's cluttered platform. "This is an audience that is kind of like the canary in the coalmine," says Nick Fuller, senior director of marketing at Mr. Youth. "If there are any warning signs, this generation is going to notice right away and they're going to leave the fastest."
However, both Fuller and Catalano agree that f8's new verbs make the platform more customizable for users. Instead of simply liking a brand, users can now read, watch, eat, etc., giving brands a deeper idea of how consumers are interacting with content. "Consumers need additional ways to express what they're feeling and how they're connecting to not only brands but with each other," says Christian Borges, VP of marketing at Mr. Youth. "[The new verbs] also empower consumers to express themselves in ways that move beyond a mere ‘like.'"
What does this mean for the future of digital advertising? "There's new pressure on brands to produce content that users want," says Catalano. Many argue the timeline, for example, will be providing so much noise that most brand (and even user) messages will be lost. In order for brands to stay relevant, companies need to make users feel like a valuable part of a community. "Brands need to make users collaborators with their products," says Fuller, "in order to create an intimate community experience."
Google+ has the potential to change the way we think about social media, but many question its future. Google+ aims to modernize the way users search for content, making it a social experience where brands with the most followers will come up first in a user's search. This information would give brands unparalleled insight into how different groups are finding products. It's unclear whether people will want a social platform and a search engine. Based on Google's slow rollout of Google+, many question how dedicated the company is to developing the platform at all.
Catalano also worries Google is making some of the same mistakes Myspace made. "Myspace worked extremely hard on monetizing it," he says. "Getting revenue was the second priority for Facebook." The fear is that Google+ will focus too much on making money rather than making sure its users are happy. Many are already criticizing Google+ for its lack of accessibility and for trying to create its own tools for sharing music and games rather than allowing users to share with established tools such as Spotify. "With Google+," says Catalano, "the requirement to make money might supersede the user's experience."