When consumers traverse the Internet today, most do so as differing personas. They may visit Staples and LinkedIn as their business self, then go to Flickr and Facebook as their personal self, then go to Twitter and Travelocity where they blend the business and personal. Each site has its own profile and username and password.
Having so many personas to manage can not only be confusing and time consuming, it can also discourage consumers from adding new websites to their Internet adventures. According to the new Forrester Research report The Future of the Social Web: Portable IDs catalyze a power shift to consumers, new technologies are emerging that will enable a portable identity. This one change could transform the Internet as we know it in several ways.
First, having a portable ID will allow consumers to take their one ID with them to every site they visit-or at least use fewer profiles than they have now. "We all have multiple facets of our persona: business, friends, family," says senior analyst Jeremiah Owyang, author of the report. "What's likely is that we'll have the same number of personas as we have email addresses." One area that may not happen, however, is Gen Y. Their personas may overlap so much that they have only one ID, or at least fewer IDs, than other groups.
Second, these IDs could help to transform most e-commerce sites to social sites, creating a shared social experience. According to Owyang, consumers will increasingly rely on peers for insight and feedback as they make purchase decisions online. This will happen whether or not brand sites choose to participate in the process. "It's impossible to stop the fact that [brands'] websites will become social," he says. "Even if they don't use community features, customers will."
How can organizations prepare for this? Businesses that haven't already done so need to build advocacy networks to encourage positive word of mouth, Owyang says. "In the era of social commerce customers will be involved in the innovation process. If you don't allow them to, they'll innovate for your competitors."
Third, connected consumers will bolster communities so greatly there will be a shift in power from brands and CRM systems to online communities. Eventually these communities will take a leading role in defining next-generation products. "Social networks are the new CRM systems," Owyang says. "CRM vendors are scrambling to get access to that data. The data within CRM is not complete; companies must aggregate information from online communities about customers and about prospects."
Finally, portable IDs could help companies communicate with more relevancy than ever. "Using a portable ID, consumers can expose part of their persona to get served the right content," Owyang says. Consumers may choose to expose more data to some sites, even information about who their friends are. A brand might use this information for a promotion. Owyang cites as an example a car maker offering a specific car to a consumer because her friend recently purchased one, and the referral is then implicit.
According to the report, this evolution will occur through five overlapping eras.
1. The era of social relationships. In this era, consumers connect using basic profiles and "friending" features, sharing information and media, as well as discussing common interests.
2. The era of social functionality. Social networks in this era are platforms that support interactivity, but consumers' social relationships are confined within each site they visit.
3. The era of social colonization. New technologies like Facebook Connect and OpenID will soon help consumers travel through the Internet with their social connections. The boundaries between social networks and traditional websites will begin to blur, potentially transforming every website into a social site.
4. The era of social context. As companies begin to recognize individual visitors and their social relationships, they'll offer customized website experiences based not just on consumers' individual preferences and behaviors, but also on who their friends are.
5. The era of social commerce. Increasingly, social networks will become the primary storehouse for identities and relationships, becoming more influential than brand sites and CRM systems. As their power grows, online communities will become the primary driver of innovation.