Hello, My Friend

So here it is, that time of year when we visit with family and friends and socialize a lot. Maybe even too much, but that’s between you and your personal trainer. Because it’s such a social time, it seemed fitting to talk about socializing and the process by which we make and sustain friendships.

Offline, in the physical world — I hesitate to call it “real” because “online” has become real for so many people — we befriend those who complement or reflect our personal tastes and values, and perhaps have something to offer in return for something we bring to them. Or our friends are people we simply choose to associate with for whatever reason. Most of us have a relatively small circle of people we’d refer to as friends, certainly by online standards. All of which brings me to the concept of “friending” in the online sense.

You’ve no doubt heard of people with hundreds, thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands of online friends. I don’t know about you, but the thought of being “friends” with the entire population of Des Moines, a city filled with very nice people, stresses me out. The postage for birthday cards alone would be tough to manage, let alone all the handshaking and dinners. So, obviously, when someone “friends” a hundred or a thousand people online, clearly they are thinking about something very different than a traditional friendship. But what?

Part of the answer — though probably a decreasingly small part — is social status. Recall Dr. Seuss’ story of Gertrude McFuzz, whose small, plain tail gives rise to her envy of Lolla-Lee-Lou. The same thing plays out online. You say you have 500 friends? How about a 1,000! What’s that you say…you now have 5,000? You see where this leads.

But as I said, this isn’t really the deal; and here’s why. On the social Web, people are spending less time visiting sites and counting friends than processing the actual activities of the people they follow, friend, or otherwise create links to. Think about the local news: How many newspapers or TV channels can you really follow? Most people have a few favorites, and that’s about it. Now compare this with favorite sites online, where the average person has just over 180 bookmarks in his or her personal list. I doubt that most visit anywhere near this number of unique sites daily, weekly, or even monthly. As a result, a lot of Web content not only grows stale, but no one even notices it. It’s kind of like friends that you haven’t tended to in 5 or 10 years.

Blogs offer a different approach: Through RSS, people are able to manage a relatively large number of blog subscriptions precisely because they are notified only when new content for a specific interest in published. Rather than checking 100 sites everyday, the savvy media consumer subscribes and then lets RSS send a notice that something worth looking at has arrived. It’s important to mention that even RSS is showing signs of needing of overhaul or keeping up with truly real-time information — think Twitter — but I’ll save that for a future column.

What’s this have to do with friends? And more importantly, what’s this have to with marketing? A lot, actually, and in particular for marketers who depend on page views as a source of impressions that lead to awareness.

First, think through the long-term motivation for building a large personal network: blogger Robert Scoble summed it up nicely when talking about why he follows in excess of 10,000 people on Twitter: He learns from them. The more people he follows, the more he learns. What he doesn’t do is form a lasting bond with each person, though obviously he built a loyal following and in turn has his own “pool of experts” that is a subset of the total Twitter base Robert follows. So here’s the answer to the value of an extensive friends network: synergy. Like the plane crash survival exercises popular in corporate team-building retreats, more connections to more people increases the likelihood of me being connected to someone who can help me solve my problem, ease my burden, or share in a joy.

In the marketing sense, a larger network is better able to offer up information I need to make a smart choice. Through tools like FriendFeed I can aggregate not only my content, making it easy for my friends to see what I’m doing, but I can subscribe to my friends’ feeds and keep tabs on what they are doing the same way that I keep current with a large number of bloggers by subscribing to their blog’s feed. But wait, there’s more.

From a marketer’s perspective, my ability to manage friends (and specifically, to keep track of activity) the same way that I manage content (e.g., blog posts or photo uploads) is a game changer. Rather than visiting sites — and being exposed to advertising — I keep track through status updates and similar subscription notices, and then only selectively actually go and visit the site. Over the past two years, my use of Facebook, for example, has changed dramatically: Rather than logging in and spending 30 minutes or an hour socializing on a daily basis (about the same amount of time I used to spend in bars after work way back when) I now watch the status updates and spend perhaps an hour per week actually inside of Facebook.

For marketers (not to mention Facebook) the impact is asymmetric depending on your use or avoidance of social media: If you are simply buying impressions in Facebook, I’m seeing a lot less of you. However, if you are participating in social media, creating and posting content that is relevant to me and my interests, I am actually seeing more of you as a percentage of my overall media consumption. I’m hardly unique in this: The new social dynamic combines a large circle of friends and tools that facilitate the efficient management of the information and content they produce. As, a result, more time is spent with the actual content and less time is spent exposed to the surrounding host interface. Take a second and read that last line again, and then apply it to the general challenge of fragmentation in traditional media: More granular the network level (e.g., loyalty to ABC), the programmer or studio level (subscribing to HBO), or even the individual show level, content-hungry consumer are drilling into very exact portions of the media streams around them, snacking on only those high-protein bites they want while skipping the filler. By participating in the social content where an increasingly large share of this snacking occurs, you can put yourself back into the conversation.

As you sink into the social comfort of the holiday season, take a look around at your personal network. At home or with close (physical) friends, it’s all about relationships and the enjoyment of personal company. Online, like so many other aspects of our information-driven world, it’s all about increasing one’s own potential for better choices, and for driving continuous personal improvement in the process. For marketers, this is big stuff.

Happy holidays, and to each of you my sincere appreciation for your interest in my column over the past year. Be safe, and stay warm.

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