July 06, 2007

Move over SEO, It's Time for SAO

Before Search, and its cousin Search Engine Optimization, became the multi-billion-dollar industry of today, we spent our time surfing the Web, mostly amazed to find any sites that we could make use of, and especially surprised when search results returned a site that was actually something we were looking for.

Although the value and the "game" of getting companies nearest the top of first-page search results began several years ago in earnest, the Twitters and Pownces and YouTubes and FaceBooks of the world were still mere strings of code in their creators' loins at that time.

Ewww. Okay. That was uncalled for.

Nonetheless, in looking across the social software landscape, the sites and widgets and tools, the companies and indie soloists, the nomads and pirates, we can see the opportunity for companies to engage in social spaces -- to find new ways to interact with their customers, partners, and the watching world -- without making a pain of themselves. The strategy and programs around creating an integrated presence across social sites, using social tools, and interacting in positive ways with constituents, is something I'm calling Social Application Optimization (SAO).

A year ago, among online marketers' clients' top requests was a desire to engage with key demographics on MySpace, to spread to Friendster, and perhaps to participate in Second Life by hosting an event there.

Today, the opportunity for gaining visibility in gathering places across the web has increased as quickly as the number and sorts of places people are tending to gather. When it was just websites and blogs, things were easy. Now we have King MySpace, Queen FaceBook, YouTube, Friendster, Pownce, Bebo, LinkedIn, BuzzNet, Twitter, Flickr, Orkut, StumbleUpon, Tribe, various virtual worlds like Second Life, hybrid platforms like Kaneva, and more nearly every day.

Nearly every company is chomping at the bit to leverage marketing and PR opportunities on these sites that are aggregating so many people.

  • Most of these spaces don't want businesses there.
  • Many have rules against businesses creating profiles.
  • Social participants don't want to be bothered or spammed--and the ramifications of businesses jumping in the wrong way (just as we saw with blogs) are long-lasting and costly.
  • How can you be "everywhere"? Should you be "everywhere"?
  • If not, which sites are the best fit?
  • How does a company interact with customers, partners, and the watching world without pissing them off? In ways that actually HELP?
The first myth that needs busting is that businesses shouldn't be or aren't participating in these sites. Whether it's against the terms of service or not, they are. They will be. There is not shutting them out as long as they dare to be creative. Besides, we want them there as long as they don't mess things up.

Add to that busted myth the fact that most of these social sites have a large population of indie web solists, technology developers, and entrepreneurs who act as small businesses themselves, and we can do away with the "individuals only" notion of social spaces. Commerce is part of the social fabric. It's all in the how.

So how should companies use social spaces to increase visibility and touchpoints with customers and potential customers, with partners and potential new hires? What is enough visibility without becoming obnoxious? Which sites are right for which kind of businesses and activities?

There is no single right answer, and that's where SAO comes in. Simply put, Social Application Optimization is making the most of a company's presence across social applications in concert with tools, technology and social participants themselves. It is giving businesses maximum visibility and brand exposure through positive interactions with social participants.

Okay it's late. And I'm writing this on the fly. Can you tell? In keeping with that theme, let's say there's a party and people are standing around talking and laughing and drinking punch, an analog variation of a digital gathering.

Let's say there are also three flies on the wall at this party. The first fly on the wall gets wind of the desert tray and is buzzing all in the face of the party goers trying to eat some cake. Everyone is swatting at this fly, and when someone finally nails it with a towel, there's a collective, "Yeah!"

There's another fly on the wall and he stays on the wall. He doesn't move, and no one notices him much, but that fly learns a lot about people.

Then there's another fly on the wall. It sees a group of women having an animated, joyous conversation, until a tipsy barely-grown man, who has obviously hit hard on the punch, wanders into the group and tries to take over the conversation, stumbling into two of the members. The third fly buzzes over and dive bombs the guy's finely coiffed hair until it drives him away swatting at his head. The group lets out a collective, "Yeah!"

You get it. There are different "yeah"s online, and the one that reflects a positive connection between two entities is the point of opportunity where the businesses can help/enable/empower (there I said it!) people to do something they wanted to get done anyway, whether or not they were thinking about getting it done ten minutes prior.

Of course another way for busineses to help social participants is to simply not get in their way. Watch and learn. Participate but Wait. Then offer soft goods -- offer humor, or offer entertainment, or offer to continue to stay out of the way.

Like I said, it's late and I'm going on. I can do that sometimes.

So instead of winding this up with more paragraphs about insects, I'll shut up and let the flies have the floor.


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