Q&A: Erik Qualman on Social, Search, and Business

  |  November 9, 2009   |  Comments

The author of "Socialnomics" discusses how consumers will no longer search for products and services, rather they will find consumers via social media.

What impact will social networks have on search marketing strategies? Erik Qualman, global vice president of online marketing for EF Education, offers insights on this and other business trends in his new book, "Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business." I interviewed Erik in advance of the SES Chicago conference in December where he will participate on the panel, "PR, Social Media and Search." This interview is a part of a continuing series of columns that highlights speakers at the upcoming SES conference. (ClickZ and SES are both part of Incisive Interactive Marketing.)

Stewart Quealy: Has social media really overtaken porn as the number one activity on the Web?

Erik Qualman: Wow, nothing like starting off with a loaded question. According to a Huffington Post interview with Bill Tancer from Hitwise, yes.

SQ: Facebook and Twitter have gained millions of users practically overnight. Can this "viral expansion loop" continue to grow at such an exponential pace?

EQ: By the time this interview is published, Facebook will have more members than the population of the United States -- making it the third largest country in the world if you compare Facebook member data to country population data. Social media will continue its growth, but it will not be at its current exponential pace.

SQ: In "Socialnomics," you write that social media will force the hyper-acceleration of better search results. Can you give us an example?

EQ: You are already seeing this. Google has recently launched four products that are social in nature: Google Sidewiki, Google SearchWiki, Google Hot Trends, and Google Wave. Google understands its main competition is going to come from social media. That is why in October we already started to see search deals being cut between Microsoft and Twitter/Facebook. This is only the beginning, but it is happening much sooner than I thought.

SQ: Are consumers really in a commercial mindset when they're on social networks? I've read that 95 percent plus of all tweets are non-commercial.

EQ: Dell has sold over $3 million dollars worth of computers. Gary Vaynerchuk did a test between billboard, direct mail, and Twitter. He not only sold more wine via Twitter, but the cost was also the lowest. Ironically, I have sold numerous copies of "Socialnomics" by leveraging Twitter. The key to Twitter and all social media is to not start selling right away. That's analogous to going up to a stranger on the street and saying here's my business card and let me tell you why I'm great. As I outline in the social media escalator, there are four steps: Listen, interact, react, and soft sell.

SQ: Clay Shirky is fond of saying that communication tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. Do you agree?

EQ: I believe one of Facebook's main advantages is that they now have the "mommy" crowd, hence to Clay's point they have been able to simplify a technology offering. Once you have this type of mass scale, the switching costs are a little higher for a baby boomer than for Generation Y (think how many boomers are still on AOL mail). It will be interesting to see how Google Wave does, as the product is a bit complex for a general user.

SQ: One of Google's vice-presidents for engineering, Udi Manber, recently said his job is to do rocket science that will be taken for granted. How do you suppose social media fits into that rocket science?

EQ: A lot of success is dependent on execution rather than idea. Think of how much "high school reunion" activity Facebook has captured. Why didn't this all go to classmates.com a decade ago? I agree with Manber in the sense that you want to be "cutting edge" rather than "bleeding edge." The end user doesn't care how things work, they just want them to work.

SQ: A recent article in Wired magazine noted that people behave differently on Facebook than anywhere else online. They use their real names, connect with their real friends, link to their real e-mail addresses, and share their real thoughts, tastes, and news. By contrast, what does Google know about its users other than their browsing activity and search history?

EQ: Hence the pressure on Google and why they will continue to morph into a more "social" company. One of the key maxims of "Socialnomics" is that we will no longer search for products and services, rather they will find us via social media. If I'm planning a trip to Bermuda and want to know what hotel is right for me, it's invaluable to see that 10 of my friends have stayed in the same hotel, and that those same 10 friends give it a top rating. That is what the main difference will be and why Google will be pushed by social media. Humans care more about what their friends think than what an algorithm thinks. Also, with humans given the ability to help catalog the Web (via meta data), the accuracy of relevancy increases.

SQ: Marshall McLuhan once famously observed that "The future of the book is the blurb." Is social media eroding our collective attention span and ability to concentrate? Seems like our mind has been conditioned to absorb information the same way Twitter distributes it: in a rapidly flowing stream of bite-sized updates.

EQ: Often people believe that evolution is a negative thing. On the contrary, it's just a different thing. People today are used to contributing, collaborating, and multi-tasking -- that's not necessarily a bad thing. It reminds me of an old saying...I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one. The fact that we are getting better as a society at getting to the "essence" of things quickly should be celebrated rather than frowned upon. However, there has been some erosion in terms of interpersonal communication skills and that's a trend I hope stops. Ninety percent of all communication, or whatever the most recent stat is, is non-verbal, hence social media should be used as an "and" rather than an "or" when it comes to communication.

SQ: Throughout "Socialnomics," you emphasize that middlemen are removed in most instances as a result of the social Web. How does this impact the process of job recruitment?

EQ: If there are 10 people on your team and your collective networks are stronger for your specific area of expertise (e.g., SQL database programmer) than any possible recruiter/headhunter you can possibly hire, then odds are you will probably leverage a tool like LinkedIn. After all, many recruiters/headhunters first stop is to do advanced searches in LinkedIn. LinkedIn wouldn't be able to charge for "In" accounts (ability to send e-mail to people you aren't connected with) if recruiters didn't find it helpful. So, if your team already has a network of trusted individuals, there is no reason to seek help. Great recruiters will survive and thrive, but I do see there being less of a market for recruiters as a whole.

SQ: Simon Dumenco recently opined that the most successful Twitterers and the most-friended users of Facebook with really active news feeds are reverting to a rather pre-Web 2.0 paradigm: broadcasting. The "few" speaking to the "many." Is he just being cynical or is there some truth to that statement?

EQ: There is some truth in the sense that Ashton Kutcher can't respond to all 3 million of his followers. But, the real exciting thing about these tools is the ability for anyone (companies, individuals, celebrities) to listen to the "water cooler" conversation around you or your brand. Not only that you have the ability to interact and join this conversation. The fact that someone posts a tweet, whether it is good or bad, about "Socialnomics" and I can see that and, if I want, respond to it, just amazes me.

SQ: There has been a lot of chatter lately about non-traditional search engines like WolframAlpha and the future of semantic search. Any predictions on how this will tie into the social equation?

EQ: A search engine can't properly answer: "good Italian restaurant in the North End of Boston that has a kids' menu," but your social graph can. Users want this semantic ability, so it will be an important part of the "mashing" of search & social.

SQ: Microsoft recently struck deals with Facebook and Twitter in an effort to gain an edge over Google in searching real-time information. Is real-time search where it's all heading?

EQ: Real-time search is part of it, and an important part. However, the other two important pieces are semantic search (previously mentioned) and also tapping into purchase/opinions of your social graph. Meaning, search results that showcase to me past purchases and ratings of my friends/peers around products I'm interested in is extremely helpful. The technology is there -- so this could be soon. Facebook Beacon had some of this, but was rolled out poorly.

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Stewart Quealy

Stewart has been part of the Search Engine Strategies (SES) content team since 2001 and plays a key role in programming Incisive Media's interactive marketing events. In addition to SES, Stewart was part of the original Jupitermedia team responsible for launching emerging technology events such as Jupiter Advertising Forum, Plug.IN, Game Market Watch, Weblog Business Strategies, Grid Computing Planet, and ClickZ Online Video Advertising. Prior to that, Stewart worked closely with the open-source Apache Software Foundation (ASF) to launch their first ApacheCon trade shows in both the U.S. and Europe. Stewart has also worked closely with the Object Management Group (OMG), an international not-for-profit computer industry consortium, to conceive their inaugural Integrate conference. Earlier in the dot-com bubble, Stewart worked with 101 Communications and SIGS Publications, running their object-oriented programming portfolio of events, including Java DevCon, XML ONE, C++ World, and Smalltalk Solutions. Follow him on Twitter @stewq.

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