Ello, a new upstart social network burst into the spotlight last week. It has grown from just 90 members in August to a reported 30,000 new users per hour, To understand the social network let’s start with its manifesto:
Your social network is owned by advertisers.
Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.
We believe there is a better way…We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate—but a place to connect, create and celebrate life.
Even if you’re cheering for this phenomenon as a social media user, the view from inside any business that relies on social media advertising may be less enthusiastic.
Businesses need to take Ello and its manifesto as a wake-up call to rethink the way they use social networks to reach customers. The intense interest and discussion engendered by this manifesto attests to the profound misgivings many of those customers now have about the networks that occupy a growing place our work, our relationships and our lives.
Those misgivings are evident in the sign-ups for networks like Ello and Diaspora; in the emergence of anonymous, private and non-persistent platforms like Secret and WhatsApp; and in the growing number of Internet users who report taking steps to obscure their digital footprint.
We have a long way to go before Ello and its ilk pose a significant threat to established players like Facebook and Twitter — if they ever get there. But companies still need to pay attention to the growing public discomfort with advertiser dominance and algorithm-driven user experiences. As Internet users are growing uncomfortable with the now-established model of “you get free social networking, we get your data and eyeballs,” businesses need to do more than tinker with their social media strategies: they need to rethink their core approach to social media itself.
That means stepping back from the relentless quest for followers, clicks, and mentions, and instead thinking about why brands got involved in social media in the first place. In its early days, the promise of the social web lay in the ability of companies to have direct and ongoing relationships with their customers — to become more responsive, more accountable and more attuned to the things their customers really cared about. Instead, companies have found a world in which their old intermediaries (broadcasters, publishers, journalists) have simply been replaced by a new set of intermediaries (social networks, bloggers).
This shift provides companies with a chance to rethink their own use of the social web; the smart ones will seize this opportunity to forge a new kind of relationship with their customers.
But because any successful relationship has to be built on trust, companies will have to begin by addressing the trust gap that has emerged out of the past five or ten years of social media marketing — a trust gap that is clearly conveyed in the Ello manifesto. That gap is about more than privacy or invasive ads: it reflects the frustration with the steady commercialization of our online interactions and spaces. Instead of elbowing their way into Ello with branded accounts and “content” that takes the place of ads, companies need to recognize that our online world needs non-commercial spaces as well as ad-friendly networks, just as the offline world has room for both libraries and bookstores. Instead of relying on algorithms and ad targeting to get dollars out of their customers’ wallets, companies need to think about the value they can offer to their customers’ online lives.
Just because advertisers are unwelcome on some parts of the social web, that doesn’t mean businesses are necessarily unwelcome, though: consumers simply want businesses to engage with them in some way that goes beyond a pitch. That could mean inviting customers into your product development process through co-creation. It could involve convening meaningful conversations on topics that resonate with your customers and your brand. It could look like partnering with your customers to make the products they want, or offer the services they need, or help them sell their stuff to other people like them. All of these are ways to engage with your customers that align with the spirit of the social web, instead of treating it as a billboard.
But you’re not going to get that kind of engagement by moseying up to the social media drive-thru and asking for a double order of customer engagement, please. You can’t leave it to the established social networks to create the platform that helps you connect with your customers; you need to find a way to convene the conversations you want, in a context that will actually work for both you and the customers you serve. And as the sudden rise of Ello suggests, that will probably need to be a context in which your customers feel like you are treating both their data and their attention with the greatest respect.
And you can begin with your own version of the Ello manifesto:
Your customer relationships are owned by other companies — companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Every interaction you have, every customer you acquire and every ad you place is tracked, recorded and converted into data that can serve your competitors — or the social network itself. You dedicate your ad dollars, your customer relations team and your very best content creators to building a social network that somebody else controls. You are the customer, but your own customers are the product that is bought and sold.
We believe there is a better way…We believe the social web can be a tool for customer engagement. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate — but a place to connect, create and celebrate what we can do together.