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Interest networks: The new online social platform

The web has made a profound impact on human behavior in ways that were impossible to imagine in the physical world. In the years ahead, it will continue to re-shape the way we work, live, learn and connect. Shouvick Mukherjee writes.

india Updated: Jul 31, 2011 22:27 IST

The web has made a profound impact on human behavior in ways that were impossible to imagine in the physical world. In the years ahead, it will continue to re-shape the way we work, live, learn and connect.

One such phenomenon has been the emergence of the online social network. It has given us a platform to share our thoughts, knowledge and preferences not only with people we know but also with those we are not directly connected with in the physical world.

This has a bearing on how consumers make a choice around their consumption pattern. And this is the reason why social networks have been touted as the next big opportunity for advertisers and publishers.

In reality, however, we've barely begun to scratch the surface of how we interact with and get value and satisfaction from our networks. Driven in part by our interests, social networks are going to reorganise themselves as 'interest networks'. And it will have a bearing on all the three participants of the internet ecosystem - users, publishers and advertisers.

Users: A motley crowd
Our social networks have become large and unwieldy, consisting of people we don't even know directly. Some of them are mere acquaintances, and some who slipped into the network through referrals. People who became part of our network during an early stage were clearly people who mattered more to us. Over time, people across genres became part of the network, thus diluting it. As a result, social networks today are large but lack intimacy. Increasingly, users have started feeling that their networks lack personality and are difficult to manage. Group has given way to crowd.

Publisher's pain
Content publishers, the second constituent on the internet, make the internet rich and consumable. Social networks represented a strong opportunity to publishers as they could now offer content to a set of users who are engaged. The content consumption pattern would then provide context to advertisers to tap the users, in the process incentivising the publishers. But the whole premise collapses when social networks lack personality. It doesn't offer any clue to publishers, thus targeting become impossible.

Disparate and random content offer no respite to advertisers from the perils of mass media. On the other hand, when the same network is reorganised around micro communities that are interest-based, it offers a deeply engaged environment with a high probability of content consumption.

Advertiser's dilemma
The advertiser is the third constituent of the internet ecosystem. Advertising on the internet is based on the promise of personalisation. It tried to capitalise on the weaknesses of mass media by adhering to metrics that made each dollar count. Within the realm of online advertising, social networks held high promise, primarily because it is addictive and has a high engagement rate.

However, with these networks turning into a motley crowd, the promise is lost. It doesn't offer the context that can be tapped by advertisers to run targeted campaigns. This is another reason why the emergence of smaller, manageable interest networks will restore the promise. Suddenly, a seller of fishing products will be able to target people who are interested in fishing and not in just about anything.

Brands will become more focused in their targeting and communication as they will have a clear sense on what users are interested in. This is where advertising will become information. The interest graph will help marketers to map the people, places, things, events that not only define who they are, but who they desire to become.

One-to-many social graphs will give way to one-to-few interest graphs, a utopian fabric for marketers, publishers and consumers.

For consumers, it will mean the ability to create smaller, more intimate, context-specific communities using their existing social graph.

By understanding interest graphs, publishers will be able to position their content to match the preference of

different groups with the social network. It will provide them with a reasonable understanding of what topics and types of content users prefer, how best to package it and when and how to promote it. All of this will give advertisers better monetisation opportunities and a much better ROI.

The writer is VP & CEO, Yahoo! India R&D.