Making sense of it all – Part 1: the consumer

Wasn’t it nice in the days before social networking, before intelligent spam filters and privacy concerns? You could just send out a few thousand emails and watch them land on the virtual desks of the people in your bought list. Everything was so much simpler then, there was even the slight possibility that someone might open your email and take a look because they didn’t have 500 emails sitting permanently in their inbox, looking for a home.

Okay, I’m being facetious, but there’s no denying that our job as marketers have got more difficult in the last few years, and it’s going to get worse.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the consumer, it shouldn’t be difficult, as let’s not forget, we’re consumers too.

In this digital world we have more information than we could possibly ever want. Whether it’s videos to watch – 24 hours of video are uploaded every minute on YouTube – or articles to read – 25% of all tweets contain links and your average user receives approximately 40 tweeted links per day – we are flooded with information. Some of it will be important and some of it will be rubbish, but the challenge remains to be able to filter the good from the bad.

Automatic priorotisation of your messages

Image taken from Google's video introducing Google Priority Inbox

As a result of this information glut, especially the glut of messages, companies such as Google and Facebook are starting to introduce technology to help their customers manage their inbox.

Google Priority Inbox works out which mail is important to you using a combination of factors, including if how often you’ve emailed the sender before, Whether you have opened messages from the sender before (or just deleted them), whether the email contains keywords similar to those in emails you have read previously, and finally, whether you’ve replied to them before. Message that it deems are important get given priority billing at the top of your inbox, pushing unimportant mails down into the main bulk of email. Users can help train the system using the ‘Important’ and ‘Not Important’ buttons. Interestingly, early figures are showing that, on average, users are spending 15% less time each day reading email, and a significant 43% more time reading important mail compared to unimportant. These figures are compared to Google Mail users who haven’t enabled Priority Inbox, but they still give an insight as to how reading habits will change.

Facebook Messages is yet to roll out, but is grabbing a lot of attention. Their approach is to combine all communications into a single conversational view, so that email, chat and SMS all appear side by side. Using this paradigm, all messages would appear side-by-side in a single fluid conversation. For the user it’s a simple experience, for Facebook it’s a great lock-in tool. A key element of Messages is the ability to filter incoming messages, in much the same way as Google Priority inbox. However, Facebook has the added advantage of being able to see which senders you are friends with by looking directly at your friends list, not just your previous activity. Any messages received from sources outside this list get automatically moved to a separate folder that isn’t visible by default, and in some cases, will be automatically bounced back to the sender.

In the desktop space, Microsoft has included their Outlook Social Connector built in to Outlook 2010 (although it also works in 2007 and 2003). This add-on connects your Outlook to your social media accounts, and supports Facebook, LinkedIn and others. Although this is currently used simply to add contextual information to your contacts, it’s a simple jump for Microsoft to start using this information to prioritise and filter your email based on your relationship to the sender.

Although these technologies are all in relative infancy at the moment, there is no doubt that they will improve, and the fundamental idea behind them – that your social circle, personal and business, is the most important group with which you communicate – will be realised more effectively.

A few days ago, a B2BM Blog posed the question: Email is dead, email is not dead, arrgh! Which is it? Well, it’s neither. As with all things, it evolves over time. Communication systems that were once distinct (telephone, IM, Email, SMS) are merging, through the use of portals such as Facebook, Google and Outlook, into a single communication system. And with that convergence the rules that govern those systems will also merge.

So, as marketers, where does this leave us?

Put simply, we are going to have to make friends. Moving forward, to maximise our ability to engage and communicate with our customers across all touch points, we must become part of their social circle, and that will require a very different approach. Social Media will have to take the lead as we become more responsive, more personal and, ultimately, more human in our marketing activity. Those brands that can pull consumers to them (rather than push at them) will find themselves well set, taking on the affectations of web celebrity and gathering followers around them. Hopefully creating a strong group of brand advocates.

That’s enough for now. In part 2, I’ll look at how we can manage our clients growing social landscapes effectively and harness the relationships we build.

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