The Promise and Peril of Social Search

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Microsoft is rolling out some interesting new features for its Bing iPhone app, which have the potential to totally change the search experience for users by incorporating content from their friends' Twitter and Facebook accounts into search results. This is obviously a cool new capability -- but I can also foresee some potential problems arising if marketers try to combine this function with social commerce.

Basically, the new Bing feature lets you connect your Facebook and Twitter accounts to the search engine, giving it access to all the content your friends have chosen to share with you. Clearly there are some nifty uses for this: imagine that you're going to buy a product -- say, a new phone. If you search for the phone name, you'll turn up the usual suspects like the manufacturer's home page, articles about the device, and Web reviews, but also anything your friends may have said about it.

It seems to me this would obviously be an attractive arena for marketers to get involved in. It's not hard to imagine a system where brand marketers reward people for influencing their friends' online behavior, including purchases, through social search. Really, this would just be taking the established practice of word-of-mouth marketing and giving it a passive spin. But they would do well to approach with caution, because I think the potential for blowback is much greater too.

Using standard Web tracking features, marketers could determine whether someone's comments about a product helped persuade a friend to do more research or buy the product: for example, the friend might see a comment, "I got the new Justin Bieber single OMG it is so great" and then download the song herself. This should be pretty easy to do through paid search placements alongside organic search results, or targeted banner ads alongside Facebook or Twitter comments. Once the marketers have this kind of information, they can begin rewarding the influencers with points or virtual currency to get free stuff.

The potential problem here, as with some other word-of-mouth marketing tactics, is that a situation arises in which a person is unwittingly receiving marketing messages from their friends and acquaintances. One obvious solution -- the only solution, it seems to me -- is full disclosure: the system could be designed to include prominent notices that their friends are being compensated for their participation in a marketing program.

Of course, this may diminish the effectiveness of the system. But that's kind of the whole point. The risks associated with a marketer not disclosing that are recruiting networks of friends for social search marketing campaigns is enormous: should their participation be discovered by accident (as seems pretty likely) they could not only destroy trust in the search engine and brand, but spread discord in actual friendships.

To give another example: imagine Joe buys a car after seeing Mike rave about it, only to discover later that Mike gets free tuneups at the dealer in exchange for his advocacy. Then when Joe's car turns out to be a lemon, he suddenly realizes why Mike needs all those free tuneups, and (justly) feels he's been taken advantage of. Angry words are exchanged over the hedge, dinner plans canceled, leaves dumped surreptitiously ... and car brand X is central to the whole debacle -- probably the worst contextual association a brand could ever experience.

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