Take a look at your favourite brand’s Facebook page. It’s pretty mature, isn’t it? It’s well managed, it’s active, those guys really know what they’re doing. And it’s not just Facebook – look at the way businesses use Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest and a million other tools. Social has definitely come of age.
And then step back and put all this into context. It might seem like we’ve reached an end-point, like we’ve gone as far as we possibly can but, in truth, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of social’s potential. How do we know that? Because it’s happened before – with the birth of e-commerce.
Back in the early to mid ’90s, the only corporates who saw a business use for the web were the marketing guys. Excited by this dynamic new platform, they were the ones who established websites for their brands. But the new tech didn’t automatically deliver a new way of thinking and, consequently, these websites were little more than online versions of the print brochures and corporate resources they were already producing, coupled with some touchy-feely fun for the customers.
The UK supermark ASDA’s website in 1996 offered everything from jobs and recipes to java games to entertain their customers. The one thing it didn’t offer, though, was the ability to buy things.
Meanwhile, pioneers like Pegasus (who set up the world’s first online travel agency, and now power giants like Ebookers, Orbitz, Lastminute and Hotwire), eBay and Amazon had identified an infinitely greater potential for the web – the ability to sell direct to customers, any time day or night, anywhere in the world, disintermediating traditional retail, shaving overheads to a bare minimum, reinventing shopping forever. These pioneers invented a whole new channel – e-commerce – and the reward for their innovation was 20+ years of dominance. Brands and traditional retailers are still paying the price for their tardiness back in the ’90s, and you only have to look at what’s recently happened to the likes of HMV and Jessops to see how costly that price has been.
The same thing will emphatically happen with social. We’re still in the mid ’90s when it comes to how brands interact with their customers via social. It’s a toe in the water – something for marketers to play with. Just like the brochure sites of old, corporate social outposts collate information for their customers, they engage them with fun distractions (competitions, polls, Pinterest boards, pictures of fluffy kittens to share), they stick a flag in the sand for their brands.
But the future will only arrive when social expands beyond the social media we’re playing with now, or even the social media marketing people assume is cutting edge. The inevitable, essential future is Social Commerce – shopping where we socialise, buying things with our friends, accessing offers and exclusives via viral networks, influencing the price and nature of products with our collective, social voice.
The question, though, is whether brands and retailers will make the same fatal mistake they made 20 years ago and allow someone else to corner the market before they can get so much as a foot in the door. There’s still time to act, but the next six months are going to be fascinating to watch.