And the winner is…

Trophy

There have been hundreds of articles covering ‘predictions’ for 2011, most of them listing 10 or 20 ‘big’ topics. That’s a lot, so I’m going to try and make it a little easier on you and just talk about one thing.

“And the winner of the award for Breakthrough Service of 2011 is…” *hushed silence*

“…the company that can simplify the mass of stuff that is my online life!” *applause and tearful acceptance speech*

As I’ve covered before, the way that people use the internet evolves over time. This includes the type of information we transfer over the internet, the type of activities we do on the internet, and the way we access the internet. And the upshot of these changes?

Chaos.

I’ll stand up as an example. I’ve got Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Skype, Live Messenger, Google Talk, Mozilla Weave, Online banking (sorry, no specifics on that one) and other services. I’ve also got RSS feeds, work email, and the whole plethora of other sites that I use on a less regular basis. It takes a lot of tracking. Of course, for different people, the amount of their life spent online will vary, but, over time, I think we can be fairly certain that it will grow as the internet becomes more engrained in all walks of life.

There is a massive opportunity awaiting the company that can create order from this chaos.

The process of pulling these individual services together into a more meaningful and useful form is convergence. Convergence happens naturally in all industries as products or services mature towards a de facto standard, but the rate of innovation on the internet is so rapid that we are seeing very little of this.

How does this get resolved?

The key to addressing the issue lies in two areas: filtering and semantics.

  1. Filters provide the means to sort the important information from the unimportant, reducing the amount of information we are receiving. This will include social links (am I connected the sender in some way), past interactions (is this source of information one that I regularly communicate with), previous behaviour (do I tend to consume information from this source), amongst others.
  2. Semantics will allow automated systems to understand the relationship between items of data – messages, tweets, articles and others – so that they can be effectively categorised. Bundling information in this way will allow us to navigate the complex set of information more easily, and prioritise individual information sets. (There’s also a big opportunity to use this to understand the more serendipitous relationships between the information we acquire, but that’s another subject in itself)

A consumer-focused system that can successfully do this, that can sort the signals from the noise, make order out of chaos, will find themselves a real niche in the technology market and acquired before they can click their fingers.

Who is doing it now?

Not many. And where they are it’s only first steps, combining data types are very closely related already; in a previous post – Making sense of it all – I looked at a few examples of where this is being attempted in the messaging space, including Facebook Messages. Outside of this, there are only the content aggregators. Sites that collect information, but don’t apply any intelligence to the content they process.

FriendFeed was one of the more successful content aggregators, but the issue is that it simply collects into information a single place.  Although this saves me time – I don’t have to visit as many sites – it just creates a bigger pile of information to deal with.

It is the next generation of this type of service that will really change the way that we deal with information.

Where does the next generation service come from?

The usual suspects are lining up; both Facebook and Google have the required building blocks:

  1. Huge audiences for their products
  2. Massive reach – through OpenID and OpenGraph – into 3rd party information streams

Personally, I think Google has the slight advantage at the moment, due to their IP around search and there algorithmic culture, but the ongoing brain drain to Facebook will hinder this. Facebook also has the advantage of thinking more socially; it’s their core business and everything they do has that at its centre. Google doesn’t do this instinctively, and is still catching up.

But you never know, maybe a start-up will come along and be the next big thing? I hope so, and soon.

Right, back to sorting out my emails.

Let’s be Open about things

There is a misconception that to get the most out of Facebook, you have to be on Facebook.

Not true.

Certainly you can create a fan page or a company page, and get your followers to ‘like’ you, but beyond the numbers what are you getting? Social connections don’t automatically mean that you understand your audience better.

In the past, we relied on producing great content to attract our users, and with the promise of more exclusive content, tried to convince them to fill in cumbersome login forms so that we could understand our target market better. It’s not a great tactic and overall it doesn’t produce great results.

There is a better way.

OpenID LogoOver the last few years there has been a move to try and simplify the experience of using the web, and in particular how we store and supply our information to different sites and services. At the head of this move is a technology known as OpenID, governed by the OpenID foundation, a group that consists of representatives from Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and IBM.

The premise of OpenID is that web users can create one login and then use it anywhere on the web. In fact, most of us have an OpenID without even knowing it. Google and Yahoo accounts are both OpenIDs; although Facebook and Twitter aren’t. But even so, services such as Facebook Connect and Twitter’s implementation of XAuth provide a similar experience to end users.

Initially, there were more Chiefs than Indians, with all the big web companies wanting to sign up to the programme as OpenID providers and not enough sites accepting them as logins. In hindsight this is unsurprising, as control of information is the very essence of the big web players such as Google and Facebook. But over time this has changed. Now there are many sites where these IDs are accepted, from Fox News, Digg and FriendFeed to Kmart and Sears, and the good news is that it’s simple to get your site accepting them too.

So how does this benefit our users? When they arrive at our site they can choose to login with a pre-existing account, so there’s no need to enter a username, choose a password and go through the rigmarole of activating your account. They simply enter their email address and password and they’re done. There’s a great explanation of how this works at http://openidexplained.com/.

Login to Ficly

In return for making things simpler for users, we get back some additional profile data from them when they log in. The data you receive changes by provider and dependent on consent from the user, but can contain data such as their name, gender, birthday, email, time zone, address, postcode, country, web page, contacts and phone number. All this without filling in a registration form.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from adding an additional couple of questions to the login process in order to capture more client-specific data as and when necessary.

So what does this mean for marketers?

Utilising services such as OpenID and Facebook Connect we’re lowering the barriers to engagement for our targeted users. This, along with positive brand association with services they already trust with their data, will make them feel more comfortable about sharing their information with us, increasing registration rates and the amount of data captured. And the more data we capture, the more effectively we can target.

It’s in our interests to start being Open.