Charlene Li: The future of social media

Founder of Altimeter Group and author of 'Open Leadership,' 'Groundwsell,' discusses our rapidly evolving interactions with social media.  Photo: Fast Company

SAN MATEO, Ca, May 9, 2012 Charlene Li is one of the most respected voices in social media today. Her book “Open Leadership” is a New York Times bestseller. A graduate of Harvard Business School, she has been named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company in 2010 and one of the most influential women in technology in 2009.  

She also struggles planning a trip just as much as I do. She is relatable. 

Her relatable approach is why I approached her for an interview. Her two books, “Groundswell,”which she co-authored, and “Open Leadership” are two must-reads. Keep in mind this recommendation is coming from someone who reads two or three books a year and will not read The Hunger Games. I don’t care how many of my friends suggest it. Fool me once, Twilight.  

What is interesting about the future of social media is how behavior is evolving. Users are learning, adapting and growing more aware of their surroundings. Photos and video are playing more dominant roles in how we communicate. 

The greatest takeaway may be for companies. Adapt or die is a popular axiom. More fitting now may be “engage or die.” Media buys and paid PR are giving way to clever companies that create their own content and insert it into the media cycle. My own company is based on the very principle of leveraging broadcast and social media to circumvent media buys. 

Read the interview and you’ll understand why many people, including myself, take the advice of Charlene Li.  

1. What is the future of social media? What will we be talking about 12 months from now?

I believe that in the future, social media will be like air – it will be anywhere and everywhere we want and need it to be. We’ve already seen the progression of this over the past five years, with Facebook Platform and APIs enabling social media features and content to be embedded in any application, in any mobile device application. The result: the actual websites become repositories for all of your social activities. But they are created and consumed often times not on those sites or services. 

I wish I knew what will be hot 12 months from now – and if I did know this, 1) I wouldn’t be writing about it. I’d be out there building it and hoping to make Zuckerberg-billions; and 2) I wouldn’t tell you :-)

That said, one of the trends that we at Altimeter are watching closely is “The Dynamic Customer Journey.” There’s a long term trend that people continue to diversify the media sources they use and trust, including people [themselves]. But add to that the great velocity with which they are changing their media habits and you have a situation where companies simply can’t keep up.

Over the next year, I see the emergence of tools that will give organizations a fighting chance to keep up with their customers, tapping into their social media activities streams and being able to glean intelligence from it. The result will be ever more compelling experiences for customers.

Here’s a small example: Do a Twitter search on your favorite grocery store. Mine is Safeway. Between a quarter and half of the mentions will be check-ins on FourSquare and Facebook. That means Safeway has a way to identify someone when they walk INTO a store, at the start of their purchase journey. Traditionally, Safeway only knew this when I’m checking OUT, when I enter my loyalty card. If Safeway knows who I am, they can provide me a more relevant experience (coupons for new products, create a route through the store based on my shopping list) and a more serendipitous one (recommendations on what to buy because my foodie friend bought it yesterday). 

2. What trend do you watch more closely? The evolution of different tools or how people interact?

Definitely the how people interact, especially within new experiences and sites. For example, Pinterest is interesting to me not because of the ability to pin picture, but because of WHAT people pin and how they share and comment on pinned items on sites like Facebook. It’s creating new reasons for interactions, and creating new behaviors and mindsets. That’s far more fascinating than understand the features. 

One of the most fascinating trends is the focus on being “less” social. For example, Path and Pair both limit their social interactions, and in the case of Pair, to just your life partner. It focuses on intensity and familiarity, rather than broad and shallow interactions. 

Honestly, I find that most new tools and sites to be variations on a theme. We’re lucky if 1-2 new services truly create new interaction models each year. 

3a. Is there a specific tool we should pay attention to more? Why?

Anything that leverages mobile or social information to make our lives more productive and enjoyable. I’m constantly astonished how new tools are focused on new features, rather than really addressing a problem or need. My life is full of complications that need to be solved — follow any busy parent around on a day after school and make a list of all the problems that technology can help solve, or in some cases, technology is making worse. 

Here’s a favorite example: In the past, if I wanted to plan a family vacation, all I had to do was call up a travel agent. Today, I have to pull all of that information together myself. Do research on TripAdvisor for the best destination and hotel. Book the hotel. Find flights. Check my frequent flyer program to see if I have enough miles for at least one free ticket. Book that one free ticket plus three other paid tickets. It goes on and on and on. Can you tell what I’m doing in my spare time?!?

3b. How will our interactions on social media change/evolve? 

Our notions of privacy are constantly evolving. If we could time travel back to our state of mind two years ago, I think many of us would be aghast at our social media behaviors. “I’m posting WHAT on Facebook?” Our Facebook posts – including pictures of ourselves and our families – are often Public. And we’re OK with it. 

So we’ll continue to feel more comfortable and confident about sharing in all areas and aspects of our lives. We’ll also grow more cautious as we mature, modulating what we post and taking advantage of friend management settings to post certain types of posts (e.g. opinions on taboo subjects such as politics, religion, sex) only to people we feel comfortable sharing with. 

4. We keep adding social channels that we check, update. Will it eventually condense or continue to grow larger?

Most people have only a few channels that they consistently use and yes, there is a limit. The typical collection includes Facebook, LinkedIn (if working in a professional position). Add on to that maybe photo sharing (Instagram or Pinterest). Twitter, Foursquare, etc., are really still fringe activities and “mainstream” only for advanced social consumers. 

5. What is the next big thing, biggest upcoming shift in social media?

You ask good, tough questions! My brain (and fingers) are getting tired! Same response as Question 1. 

6. What role does broadcast media play in effective social media strategy? Will that change?

There is a great deal of synergy between broadcast media (paid) and social media (earned) and finally, your own sites (owned). My colleagues Rebecca Lieb and Jeremiah Owyang are writing a report on this topic. The biggest role is the synergy created between broadcast and social media — broadcast creates content, and also awareness of social media. Social media provides opportunities for interactions around that content, and those interactions become content themselves. Social media then spreads the original content and also social content. Then broadcast media will write about it! 

What will change in the future is the insertion of owned content. A successful content strategy on the part of a company inserts its own content into that cycle and also drives it forward with effective use of broadcast and social media. Over the next few years, we’ll see companies get more sophisticated about how they blend paid owned and earned media together – today, those efforts exist in siloed departments (paid = ad buying, owned = digital, paid = PR). 

 


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Jeff Barrett

Jeff Barrett is an experienced columnist and business leader. He has been named Business Insider’s #1 Ad Executive on Twitter, a Forbes Top 50 Influencer In Social Media and has previously written for Mashable and The Detroit Free Press. 

 

 

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