The Portable Network & Social Media Loyalty

I've been thinking about brand loyalty and social media lately, specifically related to some of the changes to features and interfaces that have shown up lately on Facebook and Twitter.
Looking back, Amazon became the 800 lb. gorilla of ecommerce through performance and usability. They set many new standards for online shopping... facilitating simple tasks with superior usability and capabilities. This drove incredible customer loyalty, in turn. In contrast -- with social media -- performance and usability seem to take a back seat on many sites and services today, and there seems to be no overt linkages in this area with customer loyalty.
If you get analytical about it, most social media tools and sites do only a moderate job of creating really ergonomic, usable experiences for people... yet they continue to thrive and grow at astonishing rates. As end users, we battle performance lags, the "Fail Whale" and grapple with the learning curve of using new tools. Jumping through these hoops can be frustrating, yet we continue to adopt... we use these tools, promote our presences on them, and even promote the brands themselves.
Why? Perhaps we're more patient with experimentation and failure because the tools are free. Maybe it's because we know these tools are charting some untested waters... Perhaps we're more patient because many of us are experimenting and learning on some level, ourselves. Maybe some users just don't know better.
Whatever the case, this higher threshold for poor experience doesn't explain why people tend to become more loyal to one tool over another (e.g. FriendFeed vs. Twitter), or why people abandon one network for another (e.g. from MySpace to Facebook).
While there are a number of dynamics at play, the simple answer is this: Loyalty may be facilitated by the tool sets themselves, but our loyalty to various tool sets is largely driven by the unique networks we develop within them. In my head, this looks something like this:

After all, it's the people that create the phenomenal experience... the interactions, the intimacy, the engagement, and the content shared and created on the fly, right? That's what we're there for.
Diving deeper, it's easy to note five key factors that influence social media brand loyalty with lay users today (Note - these are not the same factors that influence early adopters...):
  1. The overall size and activity of the channel's network (established user base)
  2. The actual or potential size, significance of the end-user's in-channel network (my network)
  3. The ease of replicating a user's in-channel network within another channel ("portability")
  4. The tools base level of reliability and performance (base level functionality & decent "up time")
  5. The existence of other tools that help alleviate application shortcomings (e.g. Tweetdeck for Twitter)
Collectively, these five factors make it more difficult for competitors to services like Twitter or Facebook to succeed and serve as a deterrent to a more competitive space today. The lead positioning of key services is, in turn reinforced by the exponential growth of leading networks. This is especially true for those applying best practices for the use of open source code, and making APIs accessible in a manner that encourages the organic expansion of the network and increase in in-channel activity.
As a result, the leaders continue to grow exponentially with little competitive threat. At least, it's this way, today.
But with regard to loyalty, I must question whether we stand by these tools because we love them (I'm sure some of us do) or because we have become, in some sense, willing captives of the networks, services and tools to which we subscribe. We've got a little flexibility, but our networks aren't "portable" in the true sense of the term. We don't "own" them -- the services we subscribe to do. Right now, comprehensively managing and controlling our network, groups, tagging, communication preferences today is entirely a tool-based activity. What if that changed?
Sure, we can import our friend lists from various email applications within tools like LinkedIn. We can export our Twitter, Facebook, and email contacts into Friend Feed (although it doesn't always work perfectly). We can communicate from a single channel to multiple, popular channels (e.g. or FriendFeed, Tweetdeck). However, on a grand scale, we can't, for example, take our comprehensive network and apply it across sites, maintaining "tags" for various contacts, groups and other key meta data. We can't plug our networks into other applications, like Microsoft Outlook. We can replicate our network in a few places... but we can't APPLY our network across multiple services. As a whole, our social networks are, with rare exception, poorly integrated - and often fragmented - and holistically clunky to manage. This is especially true for early adopters who may not know the "tricks" many social mediaphytes have mastered.
We can't really take our social network with us -- yet!
Looking forward, I see a day when all the people we know are united in a seamless way; Where our social network follows us seamlessly from channel-to-channel; Where we are fully in control of how and to whom we communicate across channels; Where our entire social network can be controlled from a single destination, with robust privacy controls -- and even identity management and monitoring services built in; Where we are able to establish communication groups permanently or on-the-fly to control communication based on theme, topic, relationship and other factors; Where our social network is fully integrated with our real-life network - across channels, devices, the cloud and even desktop applications. This will usher in an era where our personal networks take on a much for more useful, meaningful, tangible, connected warmth that reaches across online channels to drive real world communication and activity.
In this future, a better Facebook - or a better "Twitter" - might readily thrive, because there is no "penalty" for leaving. There is also no barrier to activating oneself within a new network or service - because re-establishing and redundantly managing one's social network within each tool will not be required. Our networks become stronger, more integrated, and we're better able to communicate to groups based on relationship, topic, intention, focus, group and other key criteria.
This isn't a pipe dream - we're partially there now. I'd say Facebook, Google have the current upper hand, but FriendFeed, Linked In and Microsoft are obviously moving, too... The day is still young, and there's room for other companies out there to play in this space. It won't be easy - there are many practical and technological hurdles as well as practical challenges in gaining critical mass that are too complex to discuss here.
One giant issue in this will be building user trust and preserving confidentiality and user privacy. Missteps in this area may represent the end of some promising tools, and are probably inevitable. This will probably be a good thing because it will raise awareness and hopefully, lead to the establishment of new industry standards for social privacy management.
In the end, it's not likely to be one -- but perhaps several companies that will make our networks truly portable. The ones that accomplish this successfully will reap a windfall in the form of usage, adoption, data, IP, usage insight, power and profit.
And, when the network becomes portable, loyalty triggers will shift - along with social media business models.
In the future, It won't really matter what users subscribe to ... because it will be easier for users to be, in a sense, omnipresent, traveling at-will to use the "best" features of various tools, sites and services at-will. People may not migrate away from "favorite" sites like Twitter and Facebook - as they seem to be hitting critical mass. However, people will be more likely to have a highly redundant presence across various social media sites, tools, networks and communities.
While this may be great for the user, it will be an uncomfortable reality for social media business. It's likely that we'll see a shakeout within the social media categories ensue, as some players fail, and other sites and tools partner, engage in acquisitions and mergers with other companies -- just like the .com and portal years. Membership numbers will be overshadowed by data that shows either a high level of "in-channel" user engagement - or the creative ability to market directly to individuals (Cost-per-individual marketing) themselves. As users become more active across an array of sites and tools, competition for eyeballs and clicks will increase, making effective advertising a more challenging prospect. Profit models for sites and networks will change with an emphasis on fee-for-service. While free services will continue to exist, we'll see more sites charging for "premium" access. Fee for use and micro-transactions will also play an important role.
To justify fees - user experience will again take center stage, as users will demand highly ergonomic, seamless experiences with full features and functionality. Social media sites, networks, tools and channels will become more important for their features, performance and functionality (like Amazon was) rather than their ability to provide us with access and control over an in-channel network.
When the smoke clears and the frenzy of social media tool proliferation dies down, we'll see different loyalty drivers at play. In the end, the winners will be the ones focused heavily on serving customer needs, providing a well integrated experience, preserving privacy and identity and providing outstanding performance. Privacy will take center stage as the public becomes more ardently concerned about the data available in the cloud. Customer loyalty will belong to proven trust agents...rather than ruddy pioneers.




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I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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