The dynamic of social engagement belies some of the earliest concerns about the Internet. Instead of isolating people into private experiences shared with no one else or clustering people into closed communities of narrow interests, the Internet is bringing people together in new and unprecedented ways. The dot-com hype about Internet community may have been overblown, but mostly because it was premature, not because it was wrong. It turns out that the social glue of the Internet is even stronger than originally anticipated.
For example, the social networking site MySpace.com is such a powerful venue for social engagement that Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation paid a premium to acquire it as a means to drive traffic to its Fox Interactive Media Web sites. The killer app isn't Fox's online content; it's social engagement at MySpace.com. Social engagement is the platform on which business can be done.
The online mall Yub.com says, "Meet. Hang. Shop." Note the order in which these activities are listed -- social engagement comes first, then commerce. At Lastfm.com, visitors are invited to "join the social music revolution." Not the music revolution, mind you, but the social music revolution. At both of these sites and at many others like them, people interact with one another via postings, raves, chat, blogs, profiles, forums, networks, discussion groups, and more. And where people are engaged and interacting, they'll do business, too.
There's a new appreciation that people like talking to other people, not to brands. In fact, at Yankelovich we've documented how little people want to be marketed to these days. The Internet hasn't put brands into the conversation; it has simply changed the technology people use to come together with one another. In the process, the Internet has emerged as a new marketing medium because it is the new medium of social engagement.
Technological advances always increase control, but in the past this has mostly been an increase in collective rather than individual control. But with blogs, fan fiction sites, social networking sites, instant messaging, digital video recorders, and more, people now find themselves inescapably immersed in a new world of participation, engagement, control, and self-invention.
The smartest use of technology is to leverage this dynamic of participation and engagement. This is what people want to do in general, and it's what all of the new technologies do so well. E-commerce is booming, but the biggest trend online is social engagement, and this will be an essential foundation for e-commerce in the future.
The best e-businesses, like Amazon.com and eBay, have always understood this. Certainly people want good deals, but a good deal is sweeter when it's available someplace where people can engage. That's why even small efforts to facilitate shared moments of self-expression make sense for PopSecret at Whatsyourpopsecret.com, or for Saab at Maintainyouridentity.net, or for msn.com at Whatsyourstory.msn.com (sponsored by Volvo), or for Tazo Tea at Tazo.com, where Tazo encourages visitors to "enlighten us." These campaigns aren't about engaging consumers with the brand. They're about brands enabling people to engage with one another in new, often quirky, but always meaningful ways.
And it's not only on the Internet. Social engagement is the next big thing for the entire marketplace. In this age of consumer resistance, people are avoiding brands while seeking one another. Brands must shift away from the single-minded focus on engaging consumers and instead become adept at enabling people to engage with each other. This will give brands the edge they need in tomorrow's marketplace of social engagement.
J. Walker Smith is president of Yankelovich Partners and the coauthor of Coming to Concurrence: Addressable Attitudes and the New Model for Marketing Productivity. (email@example.com)