It's hard to overstate the importance of design to both marketers and publishers on the social Web. Success is dependent on your ability to design messages that people will want to share and environments that enable, promote and reward sharing. There will be unparalleled amounts of interaction data coming from the social Web, and it will be very important to know how to interrupt the data for your business, whether you are marketing soda or building an online community (or doing both of those at the same time). But data doesn't make something social, data just tells us what people think is worthy of being socialized. In short, data gives us the "what," not the "why." In order to have data, we have to give people something to react to, and if we want people to react to something new, we have to create it.
The fuel of social media is people sharing content (that they or that marketers/publisher create); people want to share things they consider new, interesting, funny, sad, entertaining. If you could simply read the data and create those things, movie studios would have a much greater "hit to flop" ratio. Instead, movie studios continue to balance the art of creation with the science of market research. A studio can take into account all of the lessons learned from past films and research done today, but eventually the studio puts the movie out and success is dependent upon how people react.
The advantage marketers should have is the ability to constantly iterate based on how people are reacting by watching the data. I say "should," because most marketers do not utilize their ability to iterate on design during a campaign. Instead, marketing on the social Web is done much more like a movie release: all the thought up front, trying to use a wealth of social data like reading tea leaves, then a launch into the fickle waters of the social Web, hoping the idea floats.
It is during the campaign, not before or after, that data has the greatest potential to lead to better design. And the data can still only do that if there are people with ideas and creativity to interrupt the data. Data can lead to marketers creating a sort of "social spam" if misused, while design can lead to impactful engagements.
Designing something to be social means to design something people are going to appreciate and talk about (the emotional aspect of social). It also means giving those people who want to talk about your content the ability to do so easily (the utility aspect of social). Great design, like great art, can be subjective, but the difference between "social spam" and good social design, while hard to define, is like what the politician said about the difference between art and pornography: "I know it when I see it."
How do you think we can balance the data vs. design issue? Drop me a line on twitter @joemarchese (http://twitter.com/joemarchese ) and/or post a comment below.