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Ubiquitous Social Networks for Business

Google’s OpenSocial API’s could make a lot of sense for Business.  I started thinking along these lines after seeing how many of the initial partners in the initiative were quite business related:   companies like Salesforce, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Oracle, for example.  I asked how much longer would businesses swim upstream trying to use Facebook for business networking and communities if OpenSocial plugs directly into real business networks and communities?

This all begs the question of what would businesses do with Ubiquitous Social Networking?

Note that Google’s OpenSocial doesn’t get us there yet; it merely clears away the critical cross-Network linkage issues and lowers the barriers to write apps that will run on all participating networks.  Businesses still need easy to customize components that support the API’s to let them build special purpose Social Networks that they can live with.  I can’t believe that sort of thing is far behind, though.  Either Google will build it or someone else will. 

Let’s brainstorm a bit about what it means:

Let’s start out with the mechanisms by which many are introduced to businesses:  product registration and sales lead registration.  Let’s postulate for the moment that rather than this information disappearing into the black hole it usually does, what happens is you sign up to be a part of the community of customers and other interested parties the business is supporting via Social Networking.  So, you fill out the usual bit of information and perhaps a little bit more, and you’re on board. 

We don’t know at this stage enough about OpenSocial to say, but let’s even imagine that sign up is streamlined because the API’s can go back to the Google mother ship and save you re-entering data everywhere you go.  In that sense, perhaps it becomes the Universal Identity Fabric for the Internet that the ZDNet folks talk about.  Note that this is just getting you into community.  Anything that involves money changing hands or more security continues to operate as it always has and will remain secure and armor plated–no Open API’s needed there.

Now you’re part of a community.  You can participate in conversations with other community members and with the business.  Benefits?  Let’s see:

–  Improved Customer Service:  Some of the best and most responsive customer service I’ve ever seen comes not from huge companies but from communities.  Empower interested individuals to help their fellow customers with problems and make sure there is enough oversite so that if the help stalls or if wrong answers are given (or other noxious hijinks need attention) someone with the company picks up the thread.  I don’t know about you, but I much prefer online support to calling some faraway call center and fighting my way through some person who knows nothing but the script in front of their face.  It would be cheaper for the business too.

–  Faster Sales Cycle:  Great communities facilitate sales.  I’ve seen this over and over again.  The crudest form is classic Enterprise references, but it can be far far better than that with a real community.  Prospects get in and get infected by the enthusiasm.  Even if they see a problem, so long as it is worked out quickly, they’ll see it as a positive.  Chances are they’ll learn positives that no salesperson could ever think to give them as they watch what others are doing with products.

–  Customer Satisfaction:  People like to be part of a community.  It breeds loyalty.  Getting better Service and a happier Sales Cycle fostered by fellow loyalists being paid nothing all add customer satisfaction and loyalty. 

Given the initial entre, sub-groups can be a function of the community too.  This let’s business crowdsource all kinds of input from the customer base.  Interested parties will naturally gravitate in and out of the appropriate groups.  Whether the business is looking for input on what to build next or is actively trying to recruit new employees from these communities (often a fantastic source, BTW), it becomes much simpler for all concerned.

Okay, that’s a pretty conventional step up for some conventional processes.  But now let’s postulate what can happen if all of these business communities start to be connected via the Octopus that is Google.  Let’s assume that information can pass through the membrane below the surface of the API’s and go back to Google, where it gets repackaged into new services.  This is likely a voluntary process, but Google will be smart about making sure incentives are aligned to encourage as much sharing as possible.  They have a valuable soft dollar currency, BTW, in the form fo their ubiquitous advertising which virtually every business that has an online business must participate in.  If they have to, they can trade some of that to encourage the right behaviour.  My guess is they won’t have to.

What happens when we start the comingling?

Suddenly, we have cross-business knowledge of customers.  The benefits here are many as well.  Your office supplies source will already know which toner cartridge fits the printer you ordered and registered from Dell.  The camera store knows which accessories fit the new digital camera you got for your birthday.  The photography enthusiast site you’ve joined automatically offers to hook you up with the group of fellow enthusiasts who have the same camera.  They know from another photo site you’ve been visiting to hook you up with the landscape photography crowd rather than the portrait takers.  Because you have a membership with the National Audobon Society, you’re also steered to the wildlife photographers.

It’s almost creepy, I know, but it could also be strangely wonderful in terms of time saved and chance connections that never would have happened otherwise.  Why will businesses share their valuable information?  I know, it’s YOUR valuable information, but they see it as theirs and they’ll want you to sign off on it as such.  They won’t share contact information, but preference information remains pretty gray.  The reason they’ll share anything is they’ll be incented to do so.  Businesses could pay one another referral fees for successful transactions, for example.  That’s why the printer company is incented to tell the office supply outfit which printer you have and which toner works with it.  Google could use their ad dollars as a universal exchange currency to incent the behaviour.  Make it available to their ad engine and they cut you a break on your ads.  If they structure it right, it will be businesses trading Google ad dollars around and eventually spending even more of those dollars by making click throughs go up.

Google Operating System calls the new concept a “meta-Social Network”.  Stowe Boyd agrees that’s what it is.  I like that term, as that’s exactly what I think the long-term potential will be.

This is a beautiful example of using “open” to trump “proprietary”, and it will have far reaching consequences (although Stowe says it isn’t really “open” just “more open”).  Marc Andreesen called Facebook, “a dramatic leap forward for the Internet industry” and goes on to say, “Open Social is the next big leap forward!”  In that same post, he indicates the combined pool of users for the initial partners is about 100 million, which is 2x Facebook already.  So much for some of the early hand wringing over whether developers would find it interesting enough.  Scoble certainly views this as a threat when he asks, “Will Google Friendster Facebook?”  To learn more as a developer, Brady Forest has a succinct post over on O’Reilly.

It will likely take a couple of iterations and perhaps even some new API’s before the full vision I’m painting can be realized, but the starting gun has been fired.  I’m reminded of the seen in the movie Trading Places where the Duke’s are explaining commodity trading to Eddy Murphy.  The “good part”, as they call it, is that the traders make money whether the commodity is going up or down so long as people are buying and selling.  Google owns this commodity exchange, and OpenSocial is going to make it even more valuable while spinning off benefits that will make the web much more intelligent and aware of everyone’s personal choices.

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