Forrester’s Owyang on The Future of the Social Web

Kids these days – they don’t even understand handwriting!

When a self described “young Gen Xer” like Jeremiah Owyang (of Forrester Research) tells an anecdote about a Gen Y teacher having trouble relating to her students, Boomers like me better take note.

“Like all kids, they hated homework,” commented Owyang “but they loved blogging assignments. This teacher was amazed they couldn’t understand her writing on the board – they’re used to seeing computer fonts, not cursive. And when they couldn’t answer a question, they’d respond ‘IDK’ – I don’t know – like texting.”

Owyang was addressing a group of social media afficionados and neophytes at the recent Web Strategy Summit put on in Calgary by nForm , a user-experience consulting firm from Edmonton.

Communicators and marketers are accustomed to segmenting populations by demographics (age, geography, gender, etc.) or psychographics (interests, activities, or opinions) but Forrester (based on the Groundswell research) proposes segmenting Internet users by “Social Technographics”. For us oldsters, that’s fancy-talk for segmenting by how users actually behave online.

Forrester ladder

Forrester’s Groundswell model divides online users into six categories, from “Inactives” at the low end of the ladder to “Creators” at the high end. Although they are not discrete (Spectators could sometimes be Joiners, and so on), influencing any one of these six groups requires markedly different strategies and tactics. The temptation is often to focus too much on the high end of the ladder, but it would be a mistake to ignore Spectators.

“Age is a major factor in adoption of social media,” pointed out Owyang, “but the question is, is this a life stage or a life cycle thing? In other words, will the young maintain their social media habits as they age?”

From the age of users to the age of the web, Owyang sketched a timeline of the Five Eras of the Social Web.

“I asked the leaders of today’s top Internet brands what they saw for the social web five years out,” stated Owyang. “They all said it was too far away, these eras represent the consensus of their views for the next three years.”

1) Era of Social Relationships: People connect to others and share
2) Era of Social Functionality: Social networks become like operating system
3) Era of Social Colonization: Every experience can now be social
4) Era of Social Context: Personalized and accurate content
5) Era of Social Commerce: Communities define future products and services

Forrester's five eras of the social web

From individual, siloed websites with multiple accounts and profiles to single-sign-on “passport” systems, to fully social websites, culminating in highly personalized content and groups supplanting brands, Owyang’s Five Eras thesis makes a compelling case for the sea-change that the social web is imposing upon brands and communicators.

“The Era of Social Colonization is just starting now,” noted Owyang. “Just imagine, with things like Facebook Connect and OpenID, everywhere you go your friends go with you. Or take the Flock social media browser for example, where you have multiple logins to multiple services today. That will go away.”

We can all cheer having fewer usernames and passwords, not to mention the death of multiple address books, something Owyang calls having your “entourage in your pocket”. Owyang’s vision goes further, with extreme personalization of content and the power of groups supplanting brands in the not too distant future.

Owyang went on to speak about the one, two, and ten foot screens – one being a mobile device, two being a laptop or PC, and ten being the television. Gen Y netizens and younger often use all three at once, but the social web is still really focused on the two foot (PC) screen. The expansion to mobile is underway with numerous mobile apps for Twitter and the like. And the ten foot screen? That’s yet to be addressed by the social web, but rest assured, it’s coming.

Speaking of Twitter, what does Owyang think of this latest phenomenon?

“It’s a blip,” he said. “It’s here to stay in some form, but it has 10 million users compared to Facebook’s 200 million.”

To keep pace with the change in the social web, Owyang recommends brands focus on their advocates, marketers evolve from direct marketing to social marketing and focus on pull/opt-in campaigns and strategies.

“There will be challenges,” warned Owyang. “Privacy, social network burnout, legal issues, noise from ambient intimacy, and extremism come to mind.”

Regardless of the challenges, Owyang believes brands must prepare their internal culture for the sea-change and dialog ahead.


The live Twitter-stream from this conference can be found here.

Mack Male, a prominent Edmonton blogger and tech leader, also blogged about other speakers at this conference here.