The acronym for the day is SOCIAL, or “Suitably Overt Customer Interaction And Loyalty”.

Many of my new clients express frustration at Twitter, decrying it as a shadow play with little substance and no value to their corporate brand needs. In those cases where Twitter conversation would be a useful mechanism in brand building, it doesn’t take long to lay out the many reasons why such engagement has value. It takes more than a few minutes, however, so when a brand demonstrates the value of Twitter engagement in literally a few minutes, I want to celebrate the case study.

This afternoon, in between meetings, I stopped by a Chipotle restaurant, to grab a chicken burrito (one of my occasional not-too-guilty pleasures!). I’ve enjoyed the experience at this restaurant for several years now, with its proven mix of marketable ingredients (organic, sustainable, carefully prepared, etc) and fast friendly service. I was surprised and disappointed, therefore, when I was served today by a somewhat lackluster team of servers with little enthusiasm, who doled out minute portions, and then back-filled my burrito with copious amounts of lettuce, in order to disguise the miniscule mix of “main” ingredients. To make matters worse, they left my burrito sitting open on the counter for a lonnnng time, while they went off in search of the lettuce, such that it was stone cold when I finally bit in to it. I was in a hurry to get to my next meeting, so I hurriedly vented via Twitter, and carried on my day, disappointed, but focusing on other matters. Here below is my tweet:

Within less than a minute I got this reply on Twitter:

Keeping with my shark analogy, I decided to bite, and – while listening to a particularly monotonous Q1 earnings call, I filled out an online customer feedback form. I hadn’t even finished the call, when I received an email from a customer service rep at Chipotle (copying a grand total of 13 other Chipotle employees!) apologizing to me for my experience, and detailing the actions the company intended to take to ensure that the restaurant where I had had my unfortunate experience improve its service with all due haste. That I was also offered a free burrito was a nice “icing on the cake” gesture that I appreciated. I was most struck, however, by the clearly demonstrated urgency and seriousness with which Chipotle’s online customer service team responded to my offhanded “vent”. In a matter of minutes, this individual disenchanted customer was converted in to an admiring partner in their success. I immediately tweeted my reaction:

And was instantly answered:

That short exchange cemented the brand’s humanity and intimacy, which is all too often a casualty in a very noisy retail marketplace, especially in the food services sector. It took Chipotle less than 20 minutes to fix a relatively small problem, but that 20 minutes also served to reestablish and strengthen a relationship with one of their most valuable brand stewards, the customer.

So, when you’re next wondering whether an investment in social engagement is worth it, take a look at the cost of all your ad buys, and the time you spend interfacing with your agencies, and the weeks you spend percolating messaging, and then perhaps you’ll realize that the ability to have quick and direct conversations with your end-user is of far greater value than you previously imagined: 20 minutes, perhaps 8 times daily, exponentially multiplied by the knock-on goodwill generated…there’s real power in doing things right.

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One of the many April Fools joke postings yesterday involved a claim that Nielsen was abandoning “People Meters”, in favor of tracking audience viewing data via Facebook and Twitter posts. I fell for it long enough to think about the implications of such a move. April Fools Day, however, being the one day of the year that people critically evaluate news articles before accepting them as true, gave me pause. Once I cottoned on to the ruse, I was left with an abiding sense that an issue had been revisited that was far from resolved: Nielsen is obsolete as a tracking mechanism, and the various solutions they and their network clientele keep percolating are almost as useless as the systems currently in place.

The technology exists today to unobtrusively track actual viewing patterns and numbers, so why is Nielsen *still* extrapolating data points from subjective choice-oriented pools, such as Nilesen “diaries” and set-top boxes? Opting for social network-oriented insights would be just as subjective – even without taking in to consideration the fact that there is a drop off in usage of such apps as IntoNow, as people make a move toward reclaiming their privacy.

If IP is being patented to monetize ad-skipping, why not reward opt-ins for more granular tracking? One possible scenario: if viewers let DVR and live viewing data be recovered through hardware-embedded tracking tools, on an anonymous basis, they could get a certain number of credits. Increasing the demographic visibility of their viewership might increase their credits, and credits could be used toward ad skipping, network related bonus content, and so many other rewards. The possibilities are endless, and yet Nielsen et al prefer to look only as far as the end of their noses. The transparency of many social platforms is testament that consumers don’t mind sharing their habits, while the backlash against many misguided practices of some social endeavors (“Beacon” anyone?) demonstrates user commitment to managing their transparency, and not having it co-opted or monetized by third parties, without their consent. It’s not even about consent, in fact. It’s about collaboration. The consumer has begun to see that their life has value – monetary value – and they are willing to share that value, so long as the returns are worth the exposure. For some, it’s as simple as badges and upvotes, for others it’s perks and awards. If Nielsen gets smart, it will recognize this trend, and add a seat at the partnership table for the end-user, and audience tracking in the 21st century could become a much more accurate, rewarding, and dare I say enjoyable exercise for all involved.

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Twitter is in the midst of launching a complete redesign of its service, which will either – once and for all – clarify the purpose of this trend in our personal and business lives…or – once again – confuse most of us as to why everyone is so excitedly asking us to “follow” one another.

Follow @usdew

Despite my consistent use of the service, I grew frustrated with the Twittersphere nearly 3 years ago. Indeed, my very first tweet was a cynical jab at the concept: “To tweet to who? The owlish academic in me wants to understand the long term value in this app…so far not seeing it, but give me some time”…

My criticism waned a little as I developed a set of principles to follow, in the case of my own use. I would not tweet content, unless (with the exception of conversations) it was informative, inspiring, challenging, educational, enlightening, or empowering. I still remained ambivalent, though, due to the widespread practice of most Twits (I use the term in both its connotations) to ignore the content of Twitter feeds, and focus instead on the volume of their followers. In the absence of a clearly digestible value, Twitter has grown to become a points scoring mechanism, whereby users randomly follow as many account holders as possible, in the expectation that those strangers will immediately follow them back. If this convention is not slavishly honored, the initial outreach is unceremoniously rescinded, and the fishing expedition continues. As a result, it is not uncommon to see mundane twitter accounts followed by tens of thousands of other users, simply due to the fact that those users are returning the favor of an initial “follow”. Nobody bothers to read each other’s tweets, and nobody has any idea, in truth, what the final objective of this scavenger hunt may be, but the primitive desire to amass more than our neighbor continues.

The new Twitter incorporates some changes that might encourage the Twitterverse to grow up a little, and find a truly valuable purpose in the platform. There’s no denying that Twitter has been an extraordinary tool in geopolitical change making. The Arab Spring, Russian protests, and Occupy movements are testament to the fact that this cannot be laughed off as little more than a mindless time suck. However, the value of Twitter in our everyday lives is still in flux. Is it a news broadcasting channel? Is it an infosource? Is it a multidirectional conversational “egosystem”? Opinions and articles abound, but clear direction has remained conspicuously absent, until now.

The new Twitter, as it rolls out, proposes to move its user base more into the conversational ecosystem, in which only some have indulged, to date. Embedded Tweets will now become multifunctional media sparks, transportable and interactive as never before. The “#Discover” tab will encourage a degree of exploration and interaction heretofore ignored (or, if you’re feeling charitable, unseen). The “@Connect” tab, while still somewhat encouraging of self-absorbed grandstanding, will also open the door to less self-centered time-sensitive call-and-response interactions between accounts. Add to all this the new “Brand pages”, and you now have a brand positioning framework more akin to Google+ and Facebook…

Do you use Twitter? What do you like about it? What frustrates you still? Have you been switched over to the new UX, yet?

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Have you heard of Habbo, MyLife, Netlog, Orkut, QZone, Tagged, RenRen or Vkontakte? These and plenty of other social networking sites boast impressive numbers of registered users on each, and they are but a few of the high fliers that may have nevertheless slipped under your radar.

Social networking is – despite its paradigm shifting promise – a business proposition not unlike many others: it begins with an exponential market grab, representing the transition from fad to trend more than anything else. That stage is now passed, and is being replaced by the inevitable “backlash and absorption” period: For every Facebook, there are many Bahus, Mugshots, Pownces, Sixdegrees, Soundpedias, Yahoo360s, et al. The list of broken and dissolved social networking sites will grow as alarmingly as once did the numbers of people registering on some of those same sites. This list will be matched only by the accelerating roster of social media companies being purchased, absorbed, liquidated, and otherwise consumed by more robust and aggressive “co-opetition”. This happened in the automobile industry, in the banking industry, in the airline industry…and it will happen with this new socially impactful dynamic.

So all this was predictable enough, and shall come to pass (it has already begun). However, there is a 3rd – and less quantifiable – dynamic which is inexorably rising in influence, and could prove more impactful than any of the other aforementioned mitigating trend milestones: user burnout.

When new social networking sites cropped up over the past few years, many of us felt compelled to sign up with each and every one, for fear of finding ourselves on the wrong bandwagon, stranded at the starting point while everyone else rode thrillingly forward on the roller coaster of social media engagement. Today, it is not unusual for individuals to belong to 5 or more social networking sites, and consequently spend a large portion of their day managing their online presence. This investment of time is not matched by the reward, and the ROI (Return On Investment) must be at least balanced for an initiative to survive. While the social media brands will do their part in the coming months to raise their value proposition via conglomeration, acquisition, and improvement, this will not- in and of itself – suffice.

I predict (not sure you can predict something that is already manifesting itself, but there you go!) that the next 4 months will see a powerful degree of social network decline and realignment, as consumers and users begin to streamline their social presence online, and deactivate certain accounts, in favor of others. We have kicked the tires long enough, and the testing phase is over. Selections will be made, and loyalties cemented.

Facebook
While Facebook has made several missteps along the way, I see most people sticking with that brand, so long as Messrs Zuckerberg et al don’t really screw things up: we sense there is a bigger, more long-term vision at play here, and are willing to stay on the ride, for the present.

LinkedIn
With a little spring cleaning, and cross-platform functionality (the Blackberry app is very weak, and the TripIt app seems occasionally buggy, to name but a couple), this brand could prosper during this phase. It remains to be seen how the business model will integrate itself with potentially complementary offerings.

Orkut/Plaxo
Can more than one address book aggregator survive? Is there a merger in the offing? Which will be the first to aggregate in the Cloud with full effectiveness? Will LinkedIn realize that it could – in fact – slip past these two in that offering, and become the default Cloud business address book, as well as online profile and professional group discussion environment?

iRead/GoodReads/Amie Street/Last.fm/ReverbNation/deviantART/Shelfari/Buzznet/ANobii/Librarything/etc…
There are way too many book and music social networks out there. Watch as the smaller ones either become absorbed into larger offerings (will Pandora and Slacker also move more aggressively in to the space and compete, or will partnerships such as the recent FB bridge suffice?), or carve out ever more specialist niches for themselves, like crabs scuttling out of reach of their predators..?

Stickam/OneWorldTV/FilmAffinity/YouTube/imeem/Gather/Flickster/Auters/etc…
How many social networks can the movie-fan community support? With Hulu and others bound to upgrade their social media integration, I imagine this will be another area ripe for confluence.

With over 400 (at last count) social networking sites currently in operation, and a plethora in the offing, we have finally reached the point, I believe, where saturation has peaked and integration and selective pruning will ensue, manifest from all quarters. As I suggested above, brands will dissolve through neglect or lack of differentiation; others will be absorbed by stronger enterprises, for better or worse; and still others will find themselves deselected by their user base: the Dodo birds of Social Media.

After a period of fat trimming, including some new introductions that make sense (Social Media for the under 13 set is a challenging but attractive sector, so long as the privacy and protection issues are well-managed, and there are several compelling players coming out in the next month or two), social media will settle in to its next phase of existence: less intrusive yet more smoothly integrated into our daily lives. The novelty has worn off, and the value needs to clarify and communicate itself. More importantly, the value must find a way to unobtrusively integrate itself in to our daily lives, so that it becomes a tool in our quotidian existence, as opposed to a distraction.

Habbo (162,000,000 registered users), MyLife (51,000,000 registered users), Netlog (62,000,000 registered users), Orkut (100,000,000 registered users), QZone (200,000,000 registered users), Tagged (70,000,000 registered users), and Vkontakte (73,000,000 registered users).