By adaptive - December 13th, 2011

The semantic social web has the potential to change the way businesses market to individual customers. Will consumers – and networking sites - be willing to share enough information to make it a ...

The semantic social web has the potential to change the way businesses market to individual customers. Will consumers – and networking sites - be willing to share enough information to make it a reality?

The semantic web – which has been much discussed for more than a decade now – suggests it is possible to redefine the Internet as a framework that will allow data to be shared across applications, enterprises and communities. Instead of the Internet as it is today filled with information in incompatible formats, the semantic web would use just one standard data format.

There is, of course, a massive amount of data on the Internet, not only on websites, but also in individual searches, forum posts, blogs and other personal information that we provide every time we go online. The problem that the semantic web seeks to address is that much of this data is not freely accessible. If it could be made available in a standard open format, it could be worked on, analysed and manipulated much more easily. And this has enormous implications for the way we use and interact with the Internet, and with each other.

The concept led to the idea of Linked Data, the benefits of which were enthusiastically outlined by Tim Berners-Lee – the creator of the Internet - at TED 2009. Underpinning the concept of Linked Data is the fundamental altruism – sometimes called the “wiki” philosophy - which drives a lot of the web: the idea that sharing information is a good thing, because the more we all know, the more we all benefit.

However, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how helpful the semantic web could be for companies who use the Internet to market products and services to potential customers. Some online retailers are already using a form of semantic web. For example, buy something on Amazon, and you will automatically get subsequent emails about related products. But this is a closed system. If it becomes a reality, the semantic web could deliver both the raw material and the analytical tools to show businesses what motivates individual customers – including those of other vendors - and what influences their buying decisions.

The semantic web in the social networking arena

So far, so exciting. But what could really make a difference is being able to use the postings on social networking sites as data sources. It’s already the case that Microsoft’s Bing search engine can serve data from Facebook and Twitter, and in September, Facebook opened its Open Graph that it describes as: “A meaningful first step to a true semantic web” – to developers. What this offers is the potential, still to be fully realised, of aggregating the data posted by – and about – individuals, and analysing it to deliver highly targeted marketing information.

It opens up the possibility of, say, a cruise-ship company sending a pop-up message to the smartphone of someone who has been (a) searching the web for information about holidays; (b) reviewing and posting on forums to get opinions about specific types of holidays; (c) adding posts to a Facebook or Google+ page about the relative merits of cruises; (d) following the Tweets of someone who is actually on a cruise; and so on.

The question of precision

The first question to ask is whether it is going to be possible to track and analyse all this data at a sufficiently granular level – and with sufficient precision – to make it worthwhile. Ken Taylor, Managing Director of UltraKnowledge has his doubts: “It is actually quite hard to extract good quality reliable data that can be translated into targeted marketing messages”.

Tom McCloughlin of The WebMarketing Group is more sanguine, noting that Google already targets ads based on the content of emails, and Facebook ads are also user-specific to a degree. However, he does question how deep semantic social marketing can go and “whether it will be able to monitor conversations as well as just personal profile information like age, location etc.”

One of the other major issues is of privacy: how much information will people be willing to give up so that they can receive personalised offers? Of course, as Ken Taylor points out, “People already give away much more personal data than they realise,” just by visiting websites. John Peters of BicWeb Media also notes that advertisements “can follow you around the web, based on the sites or pages you visit”, and agrees that “people are just not aware of the extent that they are actually analysed and tracked as they interact with websites and social media.”

The benefits of personalised offers

Clearly there are definite benefits for consumers. If you enjoy eating out at, say, Italian restaurants, wouldn’t it be good if the name of a nearby  and recommended Trattoria popped up on your phone when you were in a strange town? On that basis, why not let marketers know your preferences?

Apart from the legal issues – and in most countries data protection is treated very seriously – there is anecdotal evidence that younger people are more open-minded when it comes to sharing personal information. This openness may be related to the fact that people under the age of 35 have grown up with the Internet as an integral part of their lives – in much the same way as Baby Boomers grew up with television - so they are more used to this kind of interaction.

Tom McLoughlin of The WebMarketing Group comments: “Only a small proportion of users will resent their data being used [in this way]. In most cases, if it is done correctly, the ads shown should be useful and relevant for the user and so improve their experience.” Ultra Knowledge’s Ken Taylor, disagrees, feeling that: “The harvesting of personalised data will cause resentment” and in any case, that “the real problem is being able to personalise offers at the granular level [in a way] that is meaningful.”

This “Big Brother” concern - the service might be helpful, but are we comfortable with being watched – may be important, but perhaps it’s not the critical consideration. BicWeb Media’s John Peters thinks that semantic social media is a real possibility “as long as Facebook, Twitter and Google want it to happen”.

And this is the key point: for semantic social marketing to be fully effective, services such as Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Twitter and the rest will need to embrace fully the concept of having open-standard data access – in the knowledge that it could benefit everyone else in the marketplace. And that may be a step too far.



For best practice from your corporate peers on the future of social media, check out the Corporate Social Media Summit in New York (13-14 June) and San Francisco (19-20 June). Hear from expert practitioners from companies like Citi, American Express and eBay.


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