Founder Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook offices in Palo Alto, Calif., Feb. 5, 2007. PAUL SAKUMA/AP FILE PHOTO

January 04, 2010 Lorraine Mallinder

Resistance and disbelief apparently these are the real reactions of many companies confronted with the seemingly unstoppable rise of social media.

“Many don’t want to believe things are changing as substantially as they are,” says Jeff Quipp, president of Search Engine People in Toronto.

He should know. As someone who advises companies on online strategy, he’s familiar with the fears and doubts that prey on business minds. They worry about not getting it right, about how to manage potential crises and about what might be said of them. It’s as basic as that.

But, as is becoming increasingly clear, social media are not a passing phase. Companies fretting over their online strategy would do well to take a deep breath and project themselves into the not-too-distant future. In truth, the information age is just getting warmed up.

“By 2020, we’ll have a completely connected economy,” says John Sviokla, vice-chairman of Chicago-based Diamond Management & Technology Consultants.

“The big trends will be “persistent social networks and augmented reality, with the Internet connecting more and more things”.

At its most basic level, this means that information will be literally all around us, accessed via increasingly sophisticated mobile devices equipped to recognize tagged objects, places and people. Throw in augmented reality technology and you have that same information whether from selected social networks or other sources displayed over a live feed of the real world.

Word of mouth will become more organized. Consumers will be able to point their devices at products or places and access information from friends or like-minded people, with the additional possibility of identifying where they are at that moment. They also will be able to leave geo-tagged reviews wherever they go. “Issues could literally haunt places,” says Quipp.

In turn, consumers will be targeted with tailored advertising based on information they have provided to online networks.

“Right now, you put up a poster for a couple of weeks and it remains static,” says Sylvie Daniel, a researcher at Laval University focusing on augmented reality. “In future, posters viewed through mobile devices could change in real time to take consumer preferences into account.”

Consumers may have lapped up commercials on their flickering TV sets in days gone by, they are unlikely to remain passive before the forthcoming onslaught of laser-sharp advertising. “People give enormous amounts of information to social networks. But, they will always have opinions and these will circulate in raw format at rapid speed,” says Daniel’s colleague, Thierry Badard.

Business needs to start planning for the connected economy now, says Sviokla. A former professor at Harvard Business School, he has long studied the impact of technology on business and describes what is happening now as the development of “an interstate highway system for the mind.”

“You gotta plan for that,” he says.

Overall, experts foresee an unprecedented rise in consumer power, more dramatic than what has been seen so far with the advent of the Internet. Quipp predicts an “integrity revolution. It’ll no longer be about separating clients from as much money as possible. It’ll be making sure you deliver beyond expectation.”

Companies should start building “feedback loops” to ensure customers’ concerns are dealt with systematically.

“It’s possible, even if you have the best intentions, that you haven’t created the processes to keep people happy,” he says.

Quipp advises companies to start by listening to what is being said about themselves and their competitors. The next step would be trying to facilitate two-way conversations with clients to improve relationships. For small companies, this could take a couple of hours a week.

Julien Smith, Montreal-based co-author ofTrust Agents, a book advising companies on how to build influence online, says people want interaction to be genuine. In a world of short-attention spans, he thinks it important that companies dedicate some time to their online presence each day even if not for long.