How many websites are built with social functionality from the ground up? I have an answer (of course): very few.
I'm not talking about "friends" and "social networks" - things that only Facebook really needs to do at this point, but social features - the things we're starting to take for granted on the market-leading sites across all verticals, like Amazon, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Huffington Post. User-generated content (notes / blogs, etc), ratings, reviews, content sharing, top ten lists, photo galleries, recommendations, etc. are all social features.
When the CEO says 'we need some of that social stuff on our website', what do most web teams (that aren't Amazon) do? Spend a lot of time and money building the same functions that everyone else has, of course. There's very little innovation because just replicating this functionality is hard enough, and there is very little ability to "bolt on" this functionality for 2 reasons:
- Social is built around users, and every website has their own interpretation of a visitor, user, login, and account.
- Social needs to be built into the fabric of the site. It needs to bring life to a one-way conversion. It's not suitable, appropriate or successful when a company builds a social area that's completely separated from the site content, so seamless integration is a must.
Some sites already do a great job at this, including a past customer that rhymes with Bluffington Host. Understanding the behavior of their logged in users and rewarding them and incentivizing them is key to their success. Analyzing deep behavioral data is a different challenge, but getting the mechanisms on the site to push people in the right direction is the first step, and is too hard to do today. I'd call this advanced functionality, and it's a key strategic advantage for this publisher. Unless you have really smart people on your product team thinking about this strategically, it's not going to happen. The reality is people working on most 'normal' websites, including ecommerce sites, just aren't those people.
Basic social functionality, however, doesn't need to be the re-creation of the wheel each and every time. There's a science to social, paradigms to be followed for the best results, and the modules / widgets / functions can be very similar from site to site. It all depends on how they're "built in", and that's why just about every website that "adds social" has to do it internally as part of their proprietary code. If this part were easy, more people could devote time and resources to the deep data analysis and the advanced part of social.
I think the time has come for a modular system to solve this problem. Most websites that are making money or driving leads today are not clean - they're messy, with years of code behind them. Starting from scratch or re-architecting is not an option, so integrating functionality that's actually designed for spaghetti code is required.
A framework that developers can work directly with that uses object-oriented concepts and enables developers to take pre-designed but configurable and skinnable modules and plug them into their site is the next step in the evolution of social as part of everyday life. Such a framework would create the required database tables, and integrate directly with proprietary user data, transaction data, and visit/event data through a robust and open API. The calls within the code must would be able to display statuses and activities and actions of each visitor, and be modular so they can be accessed across heterogeneous sites, different coding languages, and different levels of formatting and styling.
Integrating social functionality is increasingly important - if you don't have social functionality yet, you're already behind (and, just to clarify, this does NOT mean displaying a 'Follow Us on Twitter' button).Building it efficiently, quickly or cost effectively is hard while you're trying to keep your current site working and re-writing isn't an option. Making it easy is what I'm thinking about now.