Choosing context over friendship to filter the social web

Arnold Waldstein
May 3, 2011 — 1,592 views  
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The promise of the social web is juicy and inspiring and confounding. Be interesting. Be smart. Work like a maniac. Create value and your customers will find you. It’s a socially brushed off sequel to “Build it and they will come”. But even interesting becomes noisy and ineffective without context and connection.

The truly great promise of democratizing access for all is eating its own tail as more and more noise creates less and less connections that lead to value. This problem seems endemic of late. We all use filters to personalize information to our own needs. A few dynamic blog communities and early smart curation platforms like ensembli and eqentia start to make sense of the noise and put immediacy and relevance into the social information stream. As a business owner and marketer, pinpointing context creates value and connections. Firehosing information is akin to interrupt push advertising, spraying the already noisy world and creating social spam as exhaust. All businesses and brands are faced with the same drive to rise above the noise, create connections and build momentum. And all of us are finding ourselves at communications crossroads. What do our Facebook fans really want when choosing to ‘like’ us? Is this content or friendship? Many ‘friends’ with good intentions and divergent interests ask me to ‘like’ their causes. I do more than not, and each ‘like’ creates noise and spam.

Many of us are shyly guilty of the pure adrenalin approach to social communications where marketers and community managers are treating the world as an open Facebook page, equating coy with clever, chatter with info and volume with value. And generally, across brands big and small, there is a misconstruing of the applause for the real connection. Mistaking supporters for true early adopters and fans as a contributing community. It’s not really all that easy to sort out. Companies need to connect with their customers. Want to be interesting to their fans. Want to be ‘liked’ and shared and rise on the positive strength of their customers and fans good will.

Almost as if in the drive to have conversations, we put chatty conviviality before context and interest. It’s just easier…but it’s noisy and unfocused. Part of the problem is the power of the social medium itself, so fraught with democratizing empowerment that we live in a more aspirational reality and busyness is masquerading as focus and market intent. So…what to do? Business owners and marketers need to rethink how the social web intersects with value creation and marketing. It’s not one or the other, it’s an interlaced new order. Two ideas help me navigate the always murky intersection of social web savvy and market building intentions. Focus on the Interest not the Friend Graph. There are lots of ways to parse the internet. Most focus on friends’ connections. I like to focus on the superset of this, the interest graph. On all social nets, metadata becomes valuable as more friends vet it. The crowd is the curation principal. For example, coffee shops on Foursquare rise to the top of the list as ‘recommended’ because your friends went there and checked in. The equivalent of liking in a geo-connected world.

There are two inherent gotchas with this approach. You need lots of friends to make the sample data valid. And while potential relevance and context is created, the byproduct is a roar of social noise. Our ‘friends’ are friends for a multiplicity of reasons, not always because they are experts in everything we are interested in. They may have no taste buds for coffee or palate for wine even though we may want to meet to drink coffee with them or enjoy a flight of natural wine. That’s the friends graph crowd sourcing point of view. That’s also its basic fallacy from a marketing perspective.

The friendship graph is broad and narrow and noisy and anti-contextual by nature. This is the social web equivalent of ‘boiling the ocean’, the perennial marketing non-starter. The interest graph takes the polar opposite starting point. It begins with common interests (wines of Arbois, raw desserts, travel in Paris) and builds friendship under them, because of them, around them. It is grounded in contextual information that connects through interests. Not expertise necessarily but common passions around pursuits. ‘Like’ a fan page on Facebook sponsored by an organic wine zine or travel club. If I get real information, for example, an app for finding organic wine bars in Paris and NYC with tasting meet-ups highlighted, this is spot on. I’ll find new places, make new friends, and create a new contextual network around a common interest thread. Virality is given. Context and interest in this case is the superset of the friend networking machine. So…businesses need to find those target connections, those alpha sharers and dream early customers.

If it’s me, focus with intention on intersecting interests and context. Offer interesting info in digestible bites. I’ll share it forward and connect the string from your business to my interest network. Sharing it forward is not a phrase; it’s a behavioral reality. The need to share value forward is the behavioral key to channel social connections…and create community. Sharing is not a platform derivative of Facebook or Foursquare; the platforms gave expression to this behavioral drive. They made it easy and ubiquitous and the common language of our connected lives. The drive to share value forward is the core tenet of the social web. Sharing is power pulse, the passionate heartbeat that makes social a transformation, a complete game changer for everything from commerce to education.

Our incessant need to check in on our nets, looking for push out stuff we like and think is important, is not lip service to a trend. Sharing makes people feel good.Sharing is the social change agent of our times. Wrapping upI’m really inspired by the business possibilities of the social web and humbled by the challenges to harness it. It’s replete with potential but elusive to grasp. Figure it out (with a lot of luck) and the marketplace is truly your oyster. Approach it from a distance without understanding its unique social gravity and you create noise and spam and just churn. It is powered by honest communications. Fueled by the passion of people to connect with ideas and product and causes, and share that connection forward. Can these really be the guidelines for a business platform? Absolutely.

Arnold Waldstein

Waldstein Consulting

Business advisor. Wine afficionado. Marketing and wine blogger. New Yorker.