In the era of the 'life catalogue' where people are choosing exactly how they wish to be perceived according to environment, audience and purpose, Matthew Gidley
, director of insight and strategy at Momentum UK investigates who we're really talking to online and whether we fully understand how to connect with them.
In January, Facebook (in collaboration with MOO.com) encouraged users to start building their own brand with business cards borne out of their Timeline. 'The lines between online social networking and offline business networking are not just blurring, but vanishing.' Said Richard Moross
of MOO. 'It is clear that consumer habits of sharing business and personal information are evolving.'
Aside from being a cute marketing gimmick, Facebook business cards highlighted an issue which has been implicit in the recent online privacy furore: people wish to lead double, triple or many-times-multiple lives and want to avoid online assimilation at all costs. Increasingly, people are recognising the opportunities of being their own editor and creating different personas to suit each of their audiences ('to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet', as T.S. Eliot put it nearly 100 years ago - technology changes; people sort of don't). The notion of online identity
Harnessing the value of multiple personas is a difficult and messy business, which is why many major players are using the allure of simplicity to encourage online assimilation, to limited effect. Google+
for example works on the premise of creating a universal identity. 'We want to be the hub of all your online activity,' it trills. 'Everything you do online, you can share, and you can share it in your business 'circles' or your neighbourhood 'circles' or your schoolfriend 'circles', meaning that there is no need to log out, log in, and repurpose posts depending on who you want your audience to be.'
, unafraid to step on the toes of its sharply dressed brother LinkedIn
, is looking to own all facets of users' interaction. The New York Times
earlier this year reported on BranchOut
, a start-up that offers a Facebook app for job-related networking. David Hahn
, VP for product management at LinkedIn notes in the article that the relatively small use of Facebook apps that venture into professional profiles or networking is 'evidence that users want to keep their professional lives separate'.
The evidence does not stop here: forums and message boards following the announcement of Facebook business cards brimmed with users apprehensive about being seemingly forced into mixing business with pleasure. The irony is that many of their fears were based on a misunderstanding of how the cards would be generated, but these are the risks that brands run when they begin to develop a reputation for generally being 'up to no good'. Facebook, like many of what were once known as 'Web 2.0' brands, is definitely now in that danger area.
Identifying online personas
It seems clear that people prefer the option of maintaining and projecting multiple personas; they don't want just one identity, and no platform or provider is likely to be able to own the entirety of someone's online existence, even if there are tools in place to facilitate it.
So if assimilation is off the cards, how can marketers grapple with multiple social identities and satisfy the need among each of them to engage with relevant content specific to the persona they have adopted?
It seems almost banal to point out that social networks are a good place to start, however it's true that networks such as Facebook
have succeeded at nurturing online personas, allowing people to separate them in walled environments. Many will see Facebook as a personal platform for very close friends and family: after all, it can hold information on you from that terrible drunken weekend ten years ago to an abridged CV lurking on one of your profile tabs. LinkedIn, by its very nature is suited and booted and business-like: despite heavy integration with Twitter.
is a hybrid of business and pleasure which works well: the limited personal profiles mean that users can easily filter their streams of information to suit their audiences, and many still have multiple accounts to deal with friends, colleagues and business prospects differently. Either way, it is worth remembering that it is not an entire person talking on these networks, it is a mere fraction of their personality tailored directly to their audience and platform.Why the notion of a single identity is failing marketers
Many online marketing methodologies are flawed because they are still working from those traditional consumer profiles and segmentation models which weren't even especially wonderful when codified in the 1970s. The engagement of these fictions ignores the shifting needs and aspirations of real people and leaves marketers talking to two dimensional ideas rather than real, functional human beings. Segmentation needs to be turned on its head if brands are to take advantage of this huge commercial opportunity to tailor their products to an individual's many online identities.
Marketers need to remember that they are targeting real people. Real people rarely adhere to the rigid confines of 'types', do not think of themselves as consumers, and (to paraphrase another long-dead poet) 'contradict themselves, are large, contain multitudes'. Of course, the mother persona we are targeting on a Saturday morning on Mumsnet may also turn out to share the same offline body as the 40-something advertising executive persona who a few hours earlier was chatting with her peers on Twitter about a viral she'd spotted - but treating her as the same person is failing to understand the purpose of her time online, and is thus missing an opportunity to engage her in any real way.Habit vs. History
As shopper marketers discovered years ago, a decisive weekday pop-to-the-shop is markedly different from a weekend window-shopping wander. Despite being on the same platform, people want to engage with different tones, different products and different offers at different times of the day, week, month and year - a tried and tested concept that is relied upon by those in retail but largely ignored by online marketers complacent in assuming that social media is all one platform.
A good example of the naivety of online marketing lies in search. Google
currently only looks at history and rather blindly assumes that because you searched for lipstick yesterday evening, you'll want to see ads for it all day long. If it looked at habits, it would know to target you on your lunchtime or in the hours after work and catch you when you're most likely to connect with the brand.Facebook, Twitter... beyond?
Watching people's content output transform between social networks is nothing new, you can see it every day on your newsfeed. Many social media marketers decide which channels are right for their target audience and devise their messaging accordingly; business to business brands have become prolific on Twitter for example, while Facebook is largely reserved for B2C.
The challenge then is to bring identity to the rest of the web. Marketing and advertising exists outside of social networks, after all; from mainstream content providers and style blogs to online stores and forums.
Google's recent privacy changes allow it to pool collected information from search, Google+, YouTube, Gmail and Google Maps to feed into its 'You' database and use its platforms to sell people's interests and history back to them. While undeniably intrusive, it still rests on that single online identity (the one that doesn't exist) and relies only upon its own (albeit ubiquitous) platforms.
For marketers and businesses to really understand which persona they are talking to, and when, the most viable if slightly prescriptive answer may come in the form of social login. What began as Microsoft Passport and now encompasses Facebook Connect and media engagement tools such as Disqus
, social login makes it possible for users to choose their identity on a site, rather than just a network.
Personas defined on social networks are too well defined to ignore, and social login makes it possible to segment these personas to the wider web by allowing consumers to choose how they engage on any given online destination be it through their Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or many other accounts. With this brings an insight into exactly who you are talking to, not what they were like yesterday evening, or how they might be at the weekend.
Much like a business only using 20 per cent of its talent, we have a wealth of technology and opportunity at our disposal and need to start using it to its full potential or risk being left behind.
Matthew Gidley is director of insight and strategy at Momentum UK