Talk

While talking about the Social Media Press release yesterday I mused about the need for real-time communications to be included in the system.

Actually the call is for a much broader inclusion of person to person or person to group communication in Internet services – direct discussion between people using a site and between users and the posters of content. Talk.

One of the things all sites do is to attract people who share a common interest. From time immemorial this has formed the basis for personal discussion and connection. It is how we meet other people – through a shared activity.

The internet has introduced a new type of shared activity that mimics its predecessors –while removing the requirement for temporal or spatial connection. In doing so it has both enriched some aspects of our social lives while leaving others unsatisfied.

It is hard not to believe the rise of services like Twitter and newsfeeds on social networks from FaceBook to Linkedin, which send out a stream of deeply human but typically mundane activities, is not a reaction to an unmet desire to connect around the ordinary activities that consume most of our lives.

For myself I cannot stand in line at a store, or contemplate some types of purchase without engaging in discussion with those around me. And it’s not just me who relishes in chance encounters. On the radio this morning a store owner was recounting how his store grew out of his interest to share his knowledge with customers. One of the things he regretted with the Internet store that remains was his business was reduced to availability and price.

It doesn’t need to be like this – the ability to personally connect either with individual users or connect users with each other is both easy and cheap. More importantly it provides a means to develop the rich personal connection between people that real time voice allows.

One easy way to start is to consider adding conferencing as a regular activity related to your site.  Check out Iotum’s free conference service as an example of one service to speak to multiple site users simultaneously. Use it to educate, understand, or to explore a specific topics and tangents. It reintroduces the personal onto your site.

Want more continuous connection? Add click to call buttons – but if you’re a small organization consider integrating with find-me applications so you’re not tethered to a desk. This is a great way to add value – especially if the goods, service or cause the site is dedicated to are based on something unique where sharing insights and discussion enriches everyone.

In time I love to see infrastructure that would notify me that other users were on the same page I was – and if they were open to a spontaneous discussion. Of course in this scenario Web shopping can again become the shared activity around which people meet which it is for many in the physical world.

In the end adding voice to an Internet site re-introduces temporal connection to the relationships they build – making them more concrete and meaningful.

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Voice Mash-ups – Imagination is the biggest barrier

I’ve been watching the growth of Iotum’s Free Conference calling service because conferencing is the perfect voice service for social media. So it was that last Friday I sat in on Alec Saunders Voice Mash-up conference call (download podcast) to learn where he, and a number of voice evangelists (Thomas Howe, Jim Courtney, Andy Abramson)  think drives voice web integration.  

It was an interesting discussion that got me thinking more about voice as an interface, and mash-ups as a business model.

First voice as an interface is overlooked. The phone is ubiquitous. Everyone knows how to use them – and how to interact with automated voice applications. As well applications like speech recognition (ASR) and Text to Speech (TTS) are robust enough to make voice a reliable option for both control and data delivery for any application. Combine this with web development approaches, which have proven architectures to deliver a seamless user experience by coordinated multiple services and opportunity for new voice applications is apparent.

Still all development depends on having both users and a business case. By using data from multiple sources, delivering them through existing services and by focusing on a relatively small feature set mash-ups make it easy to solve issues that might be ignored with other paradigms.

In a business environment this means it’s possible to eliminate delays, increase efficiency and customer satisfaction by connecting people and information all without worrying about breaching the firewall. It’s meant delivery companies can confirm you’re home even before the truck rolls – saving you the inconvenience of a missed parcel and them the cost. It also means that subjects in a drug trial you can phone information in anytime making reporting both easier and cheaper.

These same approaches can be applied to social sites – linking users anonymously to explore common interests – such as on shopping, dating and fan sites. These services raise the forum (often associated with these sites) to a whole new level because voice adds emotional content that can be misconstrued otherwise.

In all these cases the number of users required to justify deployment are relatively small – because most of the cost of development is the professional services to understand and architect the services that need to be connected. And that gets to the core rub with voice mash-ups – they may provide a lot of business value but no-one is going to get rich developing them.

In large part that’s because mash-up are in my mind the component phase for a new type of voice development. Every technology moves through phases from componentization which flourishes during times of experimentation to vertical integration when costs, reliability or long term ownership issues override. Right now companies and sites need to understand the competitive advantages of using these services, and will not alter their processes much to implement them. That means a component and professional services business model. As soon as the value is proven – and the feature set across an industry understood look for vertically integrated products and services to emerge.

That said now is the ideal time to jump in and experiment because you’ll get a level of service and application exactly tailored to your needs. It’s only the ability to imagine how these services can affect your bottom line that stand between you and a new class of customer engagement tools.

If you’d like to see what people are doing with voice mash-ups drop by Ottawa’s next DemoCamp (http://www.barcamp.org/DemoCampOttawa7) as two of the demos are voice mash-ups, or drop me a line.

Adding Voice

Years ago I was a product line manager at Computer Telephony hardware manufacturer. Back then the big applications were voice mail, automatic call distribution, and numerous variants of calling card, personal assistant and unified messaging applications – and of course conferencing.

Back in July Jeff Pulver lamented that not much has chanced – saying VoIP vendors were failing to take:

“advantage of the IP based platform presented to them to deliver innovative services and instead chose to take the easy way out and simply use their platform to replicate the same services that TDM based systems gave us.”

He goes on to say that there is still “great opportunity to disrupt the communications industry”.

I’d go further. It’s not just the communication industry that could be disrupted by innovative voice services – social networking and e-commerce are ripe. And the opportunities for advertising and brand building are right around the corner.

What’s holding things back – in North America at least – is slower than need be VoIP uptake. GigaOm reports that 2011 VoIP penetration is forecast to be representing 20% of the phones in the US and 40% in Europe. That’s big – because VoIP is going to be an enabling technology because of its ability to dissolve geography and integrate to seamlessly with web applications.

That raises the other impediment in North America. Slow and expensive wireless data services. This is because voice is both a natural and efficient interface delivering both information and emotional context – and that the distribution of smart phones is moving from the enterprise to consumer markets – making those services valuable to broader pools of users.

So that’s the down side. The upside is that it cheaper than ever to add voice. Look no further than Jim Courtney write-up about the Skype Mash-up contest or Alec Saunders description of the development of Iotum’s Facebook conferencing application.

Both writers describe applications where voice enhances existing applications – and application development that is as much a business process (negotiating with service providers) as it is developing the interfaces to bridge internal and external services.

If you’re not already thinking of it – it’s time to think of how adding voice can turn your company into a disruptor.

Enhancing E-Shopping with Voice

The other day I commented on a post Mitch Brisebois  made about Etsy  the fantastic crafters e-store. I thought I’d elaborate on those ideas here.

First what sets Etsy apart is it appears to understand that shopping isn’t just about getting what you want – it’s about the experience you have as you identify what you want.  Like the hunter gathers we once were it’s about exploration, discovery, and surprise of finding something you weren’t expecting.

Etsy plays on these experiences by providing a number of innovative ways to display crafts. My favorite is the time machine which spirals images of items outwards in a random and un-ending stream. Simply clicking on an item takes you to it for a detailed look. They also do categories by broad characteristics – like search by color – which can display everything from jewelry and clothes to household goods as long as they are the same color.

The fun of shopping is not buying – its finding. Make finding fun and buying will follow.

So that’s one part of the shopping experience – the other – is that shopping is very social – at least in the physical world. It’s talking about shared experience, discussing what you’ve found with others. Even I ,who mostly shops by alone, can’t go to a store without engaging people’s opinion about what I’m buying (have they used something similar, did it work for them) or to ask them about them (what are you going to do with that salmon). For some demographics shopping doesn’t occur unless there’s a group to share the experience.

To me it seems natural that adding voice (conferencing) to the online shopping experience moves it from expedient buying into a pastime and in so doing opens the door to a massive shift in consumer behavior, and increase in online revenues.

Friends can meet and shop without being in the same place, chance meetings can occur if people on the same page can signal their interest in conversation. 

What’s also interesting is that this suggests that online community doesn’t just have to be about blog’s – it can be about extending ones current community online through shared experience.

Presence

Alec Saunders posted an interesting item (manifesto) about Presence as a key enabler of next generation applications – both voice and web.  I’d argue that some web applications – especially blogs – have exploded in part due to a simple piece of presence technology – RSS – that made it possible to pay attention to more conversations by alerting you when new posts occurred

 

What makes Alec’s article – and the discussion around it (here, here, here) so interesting is the examination of the axis that to interact to produce meaningful presence – that is “relationship, context, profile” and the types of applications that presence engenders – from mediating real-time interaction to monetizing connections through opt-in advertising or new applications and services.

 

What comes out of reading this discussion just what how difficult this it is to mediate synchronous communication for a reasonably engaged individual – there are simply too many variables – And how early these concepts are for the telecommunications and enterprise markets.

 

They are still incredibly valuable though – because even small steps in this direction can have a huge impact – especially if one focuses on a relatively few situations (like social interaction on a media web site) – and lets the users determine what they want.

 

If media is a increasingly about guiding a conversation then presence is the tool set that keeps it human – by respecting my interests, relationships and context.

Media & Internet Telephony

As more services move to IP the boundaries between them will blur. Take Alec Saunders relaying that JaJah  has signed a distribution agreement with three European media companies  – to provide free telephone calling.

The media companies get new services that drive people to their web sites, and are probably linked to their properties in other ways. JaJah gets promotion and a piece of the new ad revenue.

It’s too early to say who the winners will be because a lot of that will be buried in the subtleties of the agreement and the interpretation as the parties roll this out – but I bet both parties want to assert themselves in the customers mind – because it’s that identification where the ultimate value will flow.

In the short term the media companies not only give use things to talk about – but now they give us a cheap easy to use way to do that.  What’s not to like about that – expecially if it gives the companies new opportunities to innovate their web presence.

The Power of Voice

A London service – Directionless Enquirers – shows what you can do if you mix social networking, mobile and Internet voice a web site with people’s innate interest in helping one another.

Essentially what they want to do is replace soulless direction sources with real people helping real people.

What’s interesting to me is not the directions – but the whole range of secondary, and very useful information that can, and likely will be provided by linking 2 people. The inevitable result of a call will be more than directions – but likely include recommendations of other things (restaurants, plays stores etc) the seeker in interested in. And the power of those recommendations will much higher than a side bar advertisement – both because its delivered by a trusted source (otherwise I wouldn’t trust the directions) and it’s based on what’s explicitly shared during the conversation.

It’s the promise of real-time and personal connection that is mediated by the web that I find most exciting about this application. This service may not be successful, and there are certainly a number of issues that come to mind – but the insight at people might speak to complete strangers (as they might on the street) when the connection is mediated by a web service is a valuable step toward new web applications including one that has applicability to media – social marketing.