We’re entering into a new era of the Internet, where users are now looking to find validated sources within the mix of information overload that we all experience, said Steve Rubel, EVP of Global Strategy and Insights for Edelman during his presentation at Mashable Connect 2011. This shift is changing the nature of authority.
“The reality is, there’s too much content and not enough time,” says Rubel. “More content will be created today than existed in entirety before 2003.” With limited time and attention spans, people are experiencing information overload as well as “people overload.” Rubel called it a “friending arms race,” referring to the Facebook phenomena in which “he or she who dies with the most ‘friends’ wins.”
While Facebook is known as the most intimate of the large social networks, the simple truth is that the average user doesn’t know 20% of his Facebook friends. Rubel pointed to this — and the fact that in 2009, the New Oxford American Dictionary‘s Word of the Year was “unfriend” — to propose that the new “Validation” era of Internet life has begun, as of 2010.
Prior to the Validation era, the Internet experienced two other distinct eras, says Rubel. The first was the era of “Commercialization” (1994-2002), in which publishing was “costly and inaccessible to the masses.” As a result, media companies and brands ruled the digital space and the dot-com boom gave rise to a few new players, including Yahoo, Amazon and Google.
With the dot-com crash, though, publishing costs decreased, enabling almost anyone to be a publisher — thus, the era of “Democratization” (2002-2010). Cue the entrance of mainstream bloggers and Twitter fiends, accompanied by the shift of authority and trust from brands to individuals.
Edelman publishes an annual “Trust Barometer,” which gauges attitudes about the state of trust in business, government, NGOs and media across 23 countries. In 2006, during the pinnacle of the era of Democratization, the study found that people trusted their peers most when forming opinions about companies. Rubel pointed to the rise of social media to explain this finding.
The 2011 Trust Barometer survey illustrated an essential shift in trust, with academics, experts and technical experts within companies rising to become the most trusted sources. Meanwhile, the authority of peers has notably declined 4% since 2009.
With this shift in authority, Rubel proposes that as of 2010, the Internet has entered the Validation era, in which Internet users are beginning to “find the signal in the noise” and hold on to only those pieces of information and people that are most important to them online. The rise of intimate social networks such as Path, and group messaging apps such as GroupMe, Beluga, Fast Society and Kik, is an indicator that “people want to be closer to people they care about and let all the riffraff set aside,” says Rubel.
How do brands gain authority in the age of digital overload, then? Rubel pointed to the “Media Cloverleaf” as a solution, calling it the brainchild of Edelman’s CEO Richard Edelman. The Media Cloverleaf features four distinct spheres of media which should all be utilized to engage the public on a regular basis, he said. This is the idea of transmedia storytelling. Here are the four spheres of media:
Consumers see these media channels as one, not as four distinct areas, Rubel warns. As a result, the opportunity for businesses is to “propagate new ideas across the Cloverleaf.” Here are Rubel’s five steps for success:
Find your company’s subject-matter experts and empower them to “cultivate new ideas and engage in meaningful conversation around them,” advises Rubel. These experts could be employees or even your most valuable customers. Start by setting them up with press interviews or enabling them to represent your company on Twitter, Rubel suggests.
Cisco Together, for example, is an owned media project from Cisco that brings together subject matter experts to discuss how technology is connecting people in all new ways across various industries.
Rubel pointed out an unprecedented opportunity for companies and individuals to gain authority and become thought leaders by being the ones who “separate art from junk for people to understand it.” Curation is just as important as creation.
Social video king YouTube, for example, is finding new ways to curate the massive amount of videos that YouTube users upload on a daily basis. Most recently, the company partnered with curation startup Storyful to put together playlists for each day of the Egyptian protests.
“People on the Internet do not read,” Rubel says. “They read 20% of a webpage before they move on; 57% never come back to that page; and we spend 15-20 seconds on a webpage before we move on. We are a global planet of fruit flies.”
The solution is to make data and information more visual and entertaining. The New York Times understands this idea and even employs a team specifically for data visualization. From visualizing America’s consumption of meat and how various groups of people spend their days, to making interactive maps of homicides in New York City and minorities in China, The Times has produced some of the most compelling graphics on the web.
Publish your company’s content, such as slideshows and white papers, on hubs like SlideShare and Scribd, so that interested parties can access it and “go deeper” when they want to.
Facebook, for example, is using Scribd to publish guides and case studies for developers, journalists and Facebook Page administrators.
“Be a source of knowledge,” says Rubel. Social media is a great outlet for doing just that. Rubel recommends that companies empower all of their employees to ask and answer questions via social media, instead of putting a few people in charge of that responsibility.
While at Mashable, I have sourced experts from “Help a Reporter Out,” Quora, Twitter, Facebook, blog comments and many other online outlets. Answering and asking questions online is just as valid as doing the same thing in person. The Internet is not just a playland; it is an extension of our offline lives, a place where individuals and companies can become highly influential and respected.
Which companies are best positioned to gain authority as we move into the era of Validation? Let us know what you think in the comments.
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