I'm constantly impressed by businesses who are switched on to the growing impact social media is having on our day to day decisions. Before we commit to anything, be it buying a watch or choosing a restaurant, there is a high chance that we have used the internet to qualify it to ourselves. Right now, that may be Google but in the future every restaurant, boutique shop, airline and fish and chip van will have been qualified using social media - whether they know it or not.
Quality of a product will always shine through and results accompany it organically but those who can offer more, those who can package a product that reverberates online long after its purchase, will give the user an experience that will keep them returning.
And if you think the above examples were chosen at random: realise that companies in those extraordinarily diverse sectors are not just recognising the value of social media but thoroughly embracing it. See @brixtonvillage, @klm and @nofishybusiness for some stunning examples.
KLM have shown that a large corporation can have a heart (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sh-JRoY7_LU and a personality that shines above a price driven market. In a crowded market peppered with budget airlines and a recession they're separating themselves from the faceless. Air New Zealand also showed that having a sense of humour could prove successful no matter the product price (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-Mq9HAE62Y). Maybe you haven't heard of their tactics now, maybe it wouldn't affect your buying decision either, but one day they'll stick in your memory for this exact reason. What do you think of when you hear Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific or Delta?
At the other end of the spectrum, to prove that there is no business too small for social, we have the Leeds based Fish and Chip shop van going under the moniker of No Fishy Business. They operate out of a nicely designed little vehicle on the streets of Leeds, at festivals, weddings and are available for private hire. Word of mouth was always going to be their method of advertising but word of mouth means so much more than it once used to. They've taken the common british dish and they've spiced it up, not just with their chilli infused batter, but with personality, fun and humour.
Boutique venues like No Fishy Business and Brixton Village will quickly gain cult status by offering consistently great service and a great product. As consumers, we have thankfully moved beyond the styrofoam era (at least whilst the sun is out) and we expect more than just a product. We desire an experience. Quality of a product will always shine through and results accompany it organically but those who can offer more, those who can package a product that reverberates online long after its purchase, will give the user an experience that will keep them returning.
Conversely, companies that have too long hidden behind false facades will gradually see them crumble under a barrage of tweets, reviews and dislikes. How do you see companies we already perceive negatively, like NTL, VirginMedia and every other ISP, surviving in the social era? Already PlusNet has emerged as an ISP with a personality, time will tell whether their product stacks up.
Whether or not this happens in two, five or ten years, no one can know. What we do know is that the internet is poised and ready to take steps into a new era. Facebook has amassed vast quantities of data which is begging to be monetised. (The potential additions of more specific buttons to replace the Like button show a shift in their direction - http://techcrunch.com/2011/09/19/facebooks-new-buttons/). We can now use Twitter to quantify the popularity of a brand with Sentiment, Activity and Followers. Brands are appearing in Instagram photos, Gowalla tags and Foursquare check-ins.
Let's muse for a moment that Facebook does bring out a browser as has been hinted by many. Let's go one step further and assume that they bring a tablet to the market with a custom browser installed. Facebook then becomes THE companion for your web experience. It's everywhere you want it to be (and many places you won't).
Maybe you've heard of Facebook's allegiance with Bing. Microsoft has sunk many small fortunes into keeping it alive and slowly but surely it has chipped away at Google's dominance. But, let's face it, far too slowly for anyone to care. If Facebook were to suddenly integrate the Like button into Bing's search stream, with SEO replaced by user response and review, suddenly Bing would leap into relevance. Your search results wouldn't be dictated by who could spend the most on SEO but instead by organic, user-driven data.
This is just one potential combination of powerhouse companies. It is also just one possibility in a long line of events that will dictate our future as consumers and users.
Not only is this good for the user it's good for each and every company. They have been gifted a voice to the world. For free. How they use it is up to them but to think that they can survive without it is foolhardy. To quote the CEO of Burberry, Angela Ahrendts,
"You have to build a social enterprise. You have to be totally connected with everyone who touches your brand. If you don't do that, I don't know what your business model is in 5 years."
The consumer-digital world has a lot to look forward to.