As social media has experienced a meteoric rise, it has given birth to a new form of marketing, social influence marketing, which focuses on engaging consumers on their own terms—what they want, where they want, and in the language and format of their choosing. The question that continues to haunt marketers, though, is what do they want?
To better understand how user behavior is evolving, Razorfish conducted in-depth interviews with users between the ages of 18 and 34 who exhibit a high propensity for using a variety of digital platforms. We call this segment of the population the Connected Class and believe they represent a bellwether for predicting digital behavior. Here are six online behavioral changes we gleaned from this group that we think mark a major difference in how users experience the online world.
The proliferation of the digital you, which is how you express yourself through consumer empowerment, the power of self-expression, digital conversation, user-generated content and your chosen activities in online social behavior. In our research, we found the Connected Class is beginning to do more to build their digital you than we imagined. People have always shown different sides of themselves—the person you are at work is likely different from the person who rides a Harley-Davidson on weekends. But, today’s digital platforms are rapidly elevating the phenomenon of the multidimensional self. Connected users leverage every digital tool at their disposal to show who they are, where they fit, what they think and what they think of others—and the digital context plays a critical part in determining which part of themselves they show. They display different aspects of their personalities through the devices they use, games they play, and conversations they have. These choices will have significant implications for marketers in the years to come.
The proliferation of the profile
Despite the emergence of two social networking titans, Facebook and MySpace, there may still be room for more—or different networks. And, for marketers bent on leveraging social media, it’s critical to use the appropriate platform for the appropriate purpose.
We found this connected class surprisingly willing to maintain a presence on multiple social networking platforms—so long as a critical mass of people remains. More importantly, we found users actively expressing different sides of themselves on different communities and even managing multiple profiles on a single platform.
The proliferation of the specialized platform
Every device has a self-expressive purpose. Despite user requests for a single mobile, PC or gaming device to do everything, the Connected Class is increasingly willing to embrace multiple devices—even when those devices possess overlapping capabilities and purposes. For instance, they might own a Nintendo Wii for the whimsical side of their gaming lives and an XBOX 360 for competition, or a laptop for managing the business of life, and another littered with stickers for fun. Some users indicated that they were unwilling to make the compromises that come with an all-in-one device, but very willing to embrace devices for highly specialized aspects of their lives. For retailers and manufacturers keen on helping consumers make just the right choice in a particular consumer electronics category, the preferred choice, surprisingly, may be to choose more than one.
The proliferation of communication
We found users actively seeking to specify communication methods to other individuals either based on the nature of the relationship (family vs. friends) or, more specifically, the relative value placed on the relationship. Users are consuming various forms of digital communication like SMS, IM and microblogging at a greater frequency than ever before.
For members of the Connected Class, the phone conversation appears to be increasingly reserved for non-users of more nascent forms of communication. “Calls can be too long—if you just have a quick question, you don’t want to hear what they’ve been doing forever,” said one subject, Jillian, age 21.
From a marketing perspective, it is important to note that forms of communication like SMS and mobile e-mail remain incredibly personal, but could be relevant for a select set of direct-response-oriented brands able to integrate into the upper rungs of the user’s social hierarchy.
The proliferation of self-promotion and social hierarchy
We found that users are keenly aware of the level of interaction and sophistication demonstrated by themselves and others, and there is a level of social hierarchy in the Connected Class, that can be defined by myriad factors, including number of friends or even the specific types of activities they choose to engage in.
This notion of hierarchy was particularly evident when users described the difference between personal conversations conducted using Facebook’s private e-mail function and those using the public Wall function where they can broadcast to entire Facebook groups: “People converse on the Wall because it shows everyone how active their life is,” explained another subject, Laura, 26.
For marketers, it is not enough to simply put up a profile and see who comes. Instead they need to consider that users are consciously aware of their interaction with brands that help elevate their social status, or activities that define who they are as a person-whether that is critic or evangelist. The online social activity they choose must offer real social value.
The proliferation of active brand participation
The effects of social media on user behavior, and vice versa, have long-reaching implications for marketers. Media planners should consider some level of participation on social and mobile platforms, even if the majority of media activity is display- or response-based.
Direct marketers should define the communication channel appropriate for the relationship they expect to create with their consumers. Texting and mobile social networking, for instance, remain extremely personal forms of communication—and should be treated as such. Brand managers should consider the elasticity of their brands. Can they stretch to show unique attributes or personality traits across various social platforms to effectively fit in with the environment?
Connected users’ increasing reliance on the Web as a communication tool suggests they’ll soon expect all relevant brands to be where they are and will question those that are not. And, as new communication devices and platforms continue to change how people present themselves, the concept of the digital you looks to be finding a permanent place in the ever-changing media landscape.
Dave Friedman (Dave.Friedman@razorfish.com) is president of the Central Region for Razorfish.