Future: How The Social Contract Between People and Brands Will Evolve

In the coming weeks, I’ll be publishing the much anticipated Future of the Social Web Report, based on research conducted with the leading social networking companies and organizations in the industry. This post is just a riff off one of the sub-bullets and is intended for those that are already well versed in the social web.

In one research interview, I spent time with the insightful Chris Messina who is an active member and on the board of the Open ID foundation. After speaking to him, he brought forth insight on how portable IDs will empower people (he uses the term citizen) to traverse the web and reduce their need to constantly register to sites, and login. He’s *finally* posted on the topic after my prodding, I wanted to wait on publishing this so he gets the proper attribution.

[Technology will shift the power from brands to people as they are able to control their own identity. As a result, the Social Contract between people and brands will evolve]

In a previous post, I highlighted how this simple technology will shift the power from marketers to customers, and as a result registrations pages will go extinct. How will this happen? Because people will be able to control their identity, and can choose to expose as much or as little information as they want to brands and websites, they are now in control.

The Social Contract: Today vs Tomorrow
In order to gain control back, marketers will need to reinvent the digital social contract as we know it. Here’s how it’s going to go down:

Today, the social contract puts brands in control
Prospects who want more information about a product, access to a white paper, attend an event, or get product support will often have to register on a website. As a result, they give information, and thus power to brands for them to bug them, and bug them more efficiently. While customers can choose to unsubscribe or choose not to be contacted, they’ve given the ‘required fields’ over to the brand…forever locked up in CRM systems.

Tomorrow, the social contract puts customers in charge.
As customers can elect how much information they want to share, they are now in charge. Prospects (not customers yet) can share very minimal amounts of information, giving the brand limited ability to bug them. As the prospect becomes more interested, sarah will choose to give more information to the brand in exchange for additional value.

Use Case: How the Social Contract Between Customer and Brand May Work
To illustrate my point, here’s how this new model could evolve with Sarah, our fictional customer, at the top is the start of her journey (someone not even remotely interested) to her becoming a vocal advocate(satisfied and willing to tell others):

Sarah’s not interested in the brand. As a result, she doesn’t have to give any information as she visits a brand site, she’s just browsing and she’ll choose not to expose any information.

Sarah sees a product that attracts her eye, and requires more information, but doesn’t want to expose her personal information or register to the site. She will allow the brand to send her information perhaps in her Facebook inbox, but she won’t have to give any information about her at all.

Sarah’ starting to compare this product to others, she’s in the consideration phase, as trust is instilled, she will choose to allow her demographic information exposed, and in return receives information related to what she is likely to want, reducing her need to navigate a large website. While her demographic information may be disclosed to the brand, they may never know her actual name or email address.

Sarah is getting ready to commit to purchase, as a result, the brand offers her greater incentives such as additional services or discounts if she shares her psychographic information to the brand. As a result, the brand will be able to offer her additional related products, or engage in an actual dialog.

Sarah has purchased the product, and the brand offers her a deeper discount to her friends, if she chooses to pass along information to her trusted peers that she’s purchased the product, or her review. This word of mouth is what customers trust the most, and brands will attempt to tap into this by offering group discounts if several buy.

Sarah, who is thoroughly satisfied with the product, chooses to be public about her purchase. Although you can’t expect every customer to self-express, she will knowingly stand behind the products and brands that represent her, and become a willing endorser of the brand. This isn’t that far fetched, we currently see this with many luxury or passion products, but now the brand will encourage this, by rewarding her with recognition or other forms of social currency.

Now some of you may say this contract already exists in some forms, and I’ll have to agree. However we haven’t seen formal systems and technology emerge pan-industry that can support this. It’s even possible people can experience this all within social networks without ever formally going to a corporate website.

Although fictional, this use case could very well come to life, and I’m sure some vendors will leave some comments on how they’re already experimenting with this. As this simple technology enables customers to control their own identities, brand will have to reshape how they’ll get customers attention and ability to register.

This topic of the social contract is only one small node in the upcoming report, we’re excited to share it with you in the coming weeks.

42 Replies to “Future: How The Social Contract Between People and Brands Will Evolve”

  1. J, big fan of your work but I think I’m missing what’s profound here. It is currently, and I’d suggest always be, about value. Today someone gives up their contact info if the thing they want (eg, white paper) is “worth it.”

    And brands choose what items to offer for no contact info (in order to build brand awareness, or to begin showing value), some information, or a lot of information (eg, must set up phone meeting for live demo).

    Even with ongoing social media revolution, marketers with valuable “stuff” won’t have to give it up to anonymous users if they don’t want to.

  2. Hi Jeremiah,

    I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but how is the Sarah scenario you describe any different than what Godin highlighted a decade ago in Permission Marketing?

    The train has already left the station, the consumer is already in control, and progressive exchanges of data or attention for value is the current state of affairs…isn’t it?

  3. Hello,

    After reading the ‘reg pages will go extinct’ and this exciting article, I still have a question about the organization(s) that will support/host the ‘people identity’ secured service.

    Do you think OpenID or Liberty Alliance Project (http://www.projectliberty.org/) could evolve into this kind of actors ?

    Does the service could be supported by *any* web companies providing ‘secured online identity services’, following strong rules and standards set by an independant worldwide organization ?

    Also, I’m wondering about the attitude of some governments in front of such data repositories.
    For sure, some will be happy to get centralized db about their inhabitants… but maybe not to set a perfect new social contract.

    Once again, was great to read you 😉

  4. Tom, Kevin, Jim

    I agree, the definitions for this to happen have already been stamped. The difference here is that the technology is closer to empower it.

    ID systems will enable this to happen.

  5. First of all, I wanted to make sure you saw this cartoon from this week’s New Yorker: http://img.skitch.com/20090410-dqqan8ckc2dddts44611m898t3.jpg

    In response to Kevin, there isn’t anything profound here. I would hate to think that every blog post has to be profound. That said, I think the vision presented here is more-or-less right on.

    True, marketer-citizen relationships have always been, and always will be, about value, but the current arrangement is generally very clumsy and seems to be collapsing under its own weight. There are only so many brands (or people) that I want emailing me. Everyone has some kind of cognitive limit.

    Thanks to Facebook Connect, e-mail addresses are no longer the only currency that marketers and citizens have to deal in, which allows for a much more nuanced and progressive relationship . It’s going to take a while for brands and consumers to figure out how to manage and develop these relationships, but I think the payoff for the marketers who do it well will be great…at least they’ll survive.

  6. Jed

    Good point, email address captures may not be how Marketers are gauged on success of a campaign. Perhaps it will be ‘friending’ or ‘fanning’?

  7. I’m not sure if I’m getting this. Are you saying that _in the future_ psychographic and friend data will be stored in the cloud? I get basic demo data. Name, age, email, locale.

    How would this work?

  8. Jen

    It’s already in the cloud. Take a look at your own or your friends Facebook’ profiles of things they like, hobbies, crafts, products and online behaviors. Currently, this information is shielded behind Facebook’s login screen –yet as Facebook connect evolves, some of this could be exposed to brands.

  9. My clients are already looking at metrics more nuanced than friending/fanning/following”we’re looking at @replies, wall posts, photo views, photo uploads, etc.

    I still haven’t worked with anyone who’s gotten too deep with Facebook Connect, so I can only guess here, but I presume that the marketers’ are beginning to be segmented in the way that you described for “Sarah””along lines of how much we really know about consumers, their desires, and their behaviors.

  10. Thanks Jeremiah.

    It’s interesting coming from a research perspective. There is info that people are happy to disclose about themselves in a publicly social way that reveal their psychographics, “I like crafts” and then info they are not so willing to reveal, “I have ED,” or may not even be aware of about themselves, “I say that I’m interested in green but actually I blast my air conditioner and drive a large truck.”

    Same with friends. Even among young people, online social friending patterns do not mirror offline, although their is a greater correlation with kids that grew up with Facebook.

    I think yes all of what your saying is true about useful data being available in the cloud, but what isn’t “True” is how we as online social beings reveal ourselves.

  11. The consumer’s approach to “assets sharing” is very interesting (considering the user’s main assets: identity, connection and content).
    I think Facebook Connect has some advantages to the other technologies right now mainly because Facebook is the Social Network the highest spread in western countries, but this doesn’t mean that Facebook Connect won’t face any competition from other solutions, especially open ones.

    I tried to summarize the situation that users and brands are likely to face in the near future here:

  12. It seems to me that the inevitable adoption of a universal, portable ID is just the next step in making yet more solid and consistent our individual virtual identities in cyberspace. The extension of this trend will change the relationship between individuals and businesses…I hesitate to use the word “devolve,” because I don’t mean it in the pejorative¦but cause the relationship to devolve into the old idea of the individual consumer going to the corner butcher, and requesting the exact cut of meat desired. That person will again have a completely individual relationship with that butcher, and, moreover, the person who is standing next to them in line will see the exchange, and will modify her relationship with the butcher, based on the observation, to take the example another step forward. The implication for businesses, I agree, is that it raises the bar they need to hurtle in order to win that level of individual access, but I think we™re circling back to the old one-to-one marketing concept.

    But it also opens up more opportunities to aggregate information, as the web becomes more and more like real life but with the added ability to capture rich depths of information. Another example: if I buy a pair of boots, the business doesn™t have to know anything about me directly to use the information. If there is a picture or a video of me wearing the boots, on Facebook, or some other site, what would prevent a business from harvesting socio-demographic information about me, from all the nuggets of information I have left in posts or other public forums? In order to create a customer profile, imagine if I could scan Youtube/Flickr for the boots, pull out who posted the content, search the web for other places in which that ID is posted and harvest location, age, whatever is available¦capture the names of other products contained in posted comments, create correlations and models. Yes, it™s possible to do that now, but, now it™s a bit harder, since many people don™t use the same ID on every website.

    What is that Chinese symbol that means threat/opportunity again?

  13. Agree with the general premise, but the devil is in the details. OpenID only solves part of the problem; wielding personal data is much more complex than un/pw. While cloud storage under user control is a given, actual data could be anywhere; linked from disparate sources and presented through multiple personas via information cards or a similar metaphor. The underlying metasystem must be open and de-centralized, with interoperable methods via standards supported by identity providers and relying parties. How this plays out is a delicate tug-of-war between powerful interests. A catalytic act must occur to drive adoption anywhere near the tipping point. Like any network, its power is proportional to scale.

  14. Sue, that’s right, you’ve got the general premise. Believe it or not (and I didn’t address this in this post, perhaps another) that brands will figure out how to scrape data about your behaviors, beyond what they are doing right now.

  15. I find your use of the term ‘social contract’ not inspiring. The social contract theory is the last of the bad theories, according to me at least. Social contract are impersonal social agreements to which participants are expected to be loyal. I would hope that you would be more creative and make the whole thing much more personal and much less impersonal.


  16. Jeremiah, The new format looks great! I am excited about the efforts from the Open ID foundation. Thanks for bring their efforts to the surface on your web site. I enjoy your insights on social media.


  17. Jeremiah,

    The lighter color is much more inviting, I like the new design as a whole.

    I agree with Steven that the word “contract” is uninspired. The relationship between consumer and brand is a tightrope walk. Scraping data and listening to learn behavioral tendencies is one thing, translating that into a meaningful engagement or interaction without consumers feeling violated is quite another.

    On a recent client project we were tasked to have high school students consider a particular college. We did our research and Facebook was just one community on the list. We started the important process of engaging these students in a discussion directly with volunteer college student evangelists. Both sides learned a great deal and the conversation, rapport building and college considerations are rolling along nicely built on a foundation of trust. The “real” information that each student volunteered (on both sides) only increased after rapport was built between students in a transparent way, I don’t see Open ID accomplishing this despite being a strong offering. I think brands must be willing to “invest” themselves emotionally to some degree along with the consumer equally, otherwise it’s a shallow sales push from one to the other and in my opinion that affects outcomes.

    Maybe “social investment” isn’t a suitable term generally, however, that’s what needs to happen below the surface, at least in my opinion. “Contract” suggests mistrust and forced relationship, whereas, “investment” suggests voluntary and willingness. I believe that certain successful brands are really adept at doing this across the entire enterprise. Disney for one comes to mind.

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  19. Looking forward to the future reports and I see nothing but great things for Open ID foundation. Very curious to see how it pans out

  20. Geez you certainly got the pot stirred on an issue that seemed straight forward. OK two issues

    1) in terms from scrapping data, Stephen Baker’s The Numerati is flat out scary in terms of assembling personal data. The key is matching online and off line transactions, what’s next mind control!

    2) While all this is conversation for the web most people get their information about brands from television 52% according to Media Track that’s cable and broadcast Compared to 17% from Internet Ads. Now you might say, that’s just the ad not all of the other factors that involve product information. Regardless, what if consumers were able to control the ads they received on TV, No not Tivo, because that lets you fast forward through the ads you don’t want. What if you can select categories of ads that you wanted. Your choice say of outdoor recreation would deliver you an REI adventures ad instead of the Viagra ad.

    Do you think that kind of system would work? Where I’m selecting all parts of my information flow?

  21. Kevin –

    I agree. People will always exchange their personal information for anything they find is “valuable”. However, I think J’s point about identity and the massive reduction in “registrations” will come true.


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  23. Key here is to recognize that consumer™s attention, information, and opinions have real value and that its commercial value exceeds the value of the services for which it is being bartered.

    Services like Tivo, the national do-not-call list, life lock, dvrs, spam blockers etc. are all tools that empower consumers to exert control over their attention and information. More intelligent and consumer focused tools and services are on the way and they will reshape research, advertising and marketing.

    Corporate focused authentication “solutions” that facilitate the sharing of data are in reality corporate tools that simply make it easier for consumers to give up their valuable data. In return they are offered access to increasing array of commodity services. The raw material of these services is data. It is shortsighted to assume that consumers will continue to freely part with that value of their property without being compensated in a substantive manner.

    Today single sign on services are cleverly marketed as an ease-of-use tools that facilitate richer social interactions and they are couched in reassuring terms about how privacy is being maintained. But for whose benefit is privacy being maintained? This is but a shadow of the traditional business models of traditional media empires which are crumbling.

    Consumers will realize that their loss of privacy control and ownership means that they assume all downstream management burdens (screen spam, email spam, junk mail) and risk (identity theft) for what benefit? Why would consumers entrust their data to corporate entities whose sole purpose is to extract as much value from them as possible to benefit shareholders?

    For information based economies to function most efficiently the value exchange of transactions will require that data have a measurable cost. Markets will not function efficiently as a bartered exchange of dissimilar units of measure. Like it or not the days of free data are numbered and service providers will need to define business models based on a real exchange of an appreciable currency for the value they deliver.

    Where your information is your business.

  24. Hello,

    After reading the 'reg pages will go extinct' and this exciting article, I still have a question about the organization(s) that will support/host the 'people identity' secured service.

    Do you think OpenID or Liberty Alliance Project (http://www.projectliberty.org/) could evolve into this kind of actors ?

    Does the service could be supported by *any* web companies providing 'secured online identity services', following strong rules and standards set by an independant worldwide organization ?

    Also, I'm wondering about the attitude of some governments in front of such data repositories.
    For sure, some will be happy to get centralized db about their inhabitants… but maybe not to set a perfect new social contract.

    Once again, was great to read you 😉

  25. This was a very interesting blog post, I agree with you that People will exchange their personal information for anything they find is “valuable”.

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