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How to Explain OpenSocial to Your Executives

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After Google's announcement of OpenSocial—"OpenSocial provides a common set of APIs [application programming interfaces] for social applications across multiple Websites"—many people are talking about it at the developer, strategist, and marketing level. I'm going to take it up for another audience—your boss. Feel free to repurpose this content any way you want.

You: A Web Decision-Maker

As a Web strategist, you are someone who is partially or wholly responsible for the long-term direction of your Web site, or the Web site of your clients. If you have to explain the announcement to your boss (or you are the boss), I'm going to help.

Terms

  • Social network: An network or community where people of similar interest share. MySpace, LinkedIn, and Hi5 are examples.
  • Mini-application, app, widget: These applications, created by third-party developers or your company, can "sit" on top of or alongside those thriving communities of connected people.
  • Platform, container, social network: Where the mini-applications can reside and interact.
  • API: The common code shared among platforms and developers of mini-applications.

Situation: On Nov. 1, the OpenSocial Is Announced


Consumer decisions are made on communities where trusted members share; as a result, savvy companies go where their market is.

We've hit a milestone on how the Web is becoming amorphous: Data is about to be shared easily and quickly in a fluid way.

Google and several other social networks in the alliance launched OpenSocial on Nov 1. Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook are not part of the announcement (yet).

Four months ago, Facebook allowed third-party companies to build mini-applications for its site; this is similar in concept, but now includes many other players.

The platforms or containers where your mini-application can reside: MySpace, Bebo, SixApart, Orkut, Salesforce.com, LinkedIn, Ning, Hi5, Plaxo, Friendster, Viadeo and Oracle.

What Is Open Social?

Google says: "OpenSocial provides a common set of APIs for social applications across multiple Web sites. With standard JavaScript and HTML, developers can create apps that access a social network's friends and update feeds."

Translation: Social networks and other Web sites (we can call them platforms or containers) can share mini-Web sites (applications or widgets), which can interact with those online communities.

Example: A company that sells a variety of blenders from its Web site can now create a mini-application that can be shared on any of the social networks that have agreed to participate in OpenSocial. The blender-related application will interact with each of those communities, and could benefit from features of users' sharing, rating, and recommending blenders to their friends. The blender application reaches new audiences that interact with it, thus extending the blender company's reach.

Important Concept: Distributed

Web marketing no longer is limited to your corporate site. Let go of the concept of "driving traffic to your Web site" as a sole measurement of success. The Web, its message, and your battles are now fought on the open and distributed Web.

Trusted discussions and decisions among companies and prospects and customers are made on these social communities and networks; savvy executives need to go there.

Opportunities

  • Efficient development: Since there's standardization in code use (APIs), if you develop an application for OpenSocial that app should be easily re-used on all the social networks that are participating. This greatly reduces development time; you no longer need, say... a "MySpace strategy" or "Bebo strategy."
  • Harness existing communities: Since these applications will be plugged into existing communities, the need to build an audience isn't as crucial, as you can leverage the communities where they already exist. Why build if you can easily join?
  • Open standards help for the long term: It appears that the standards and development languages are commonly known and not proprietary, so it reduces the chance of vendor lock in. Having a common code (API) across all networks makes movement easier, reducing development and re-configuring in the long term. One should always be cautious, however, as no system is perfect.
  • Your existing applications become social: Now, your standalone applications can be shared with communities. If you've already spend resources on creating interactive marketing, large libraries, or other projects, consider how they can be repurposed on these Web sites. You can be efficient with your resources.
  • The future will bring social to your Web site: I foresee the trend clearly nodding toward this direction: Social-networking features (friends and connections) will be brought to the static corporate Web site. Soon, there will be customers, prospects, and employees networked on your own corporate Web site. We're not there yet, but start planning on how that might look.

Challenges

  • Unproven: We're still at the start of this movement; there's no reason to jump in, as the bugs have not yet been identified or corrected.
  • Open data opens risks: It's not fully clear how data will be shared among the multiple platforms. By giving them access to your applications, there is risk in exposing login and other sensitive information. The same applies to user data. The risks are not fully known.
  • Inconsistencies may emerge: Just because there is a common set of codes (APIs) doesn't mean all of the applications will behave the same way across each of the platforms. There may be inconsistency, as no user shares the same set of friends (social graph) on each network.
  • Cultural differences: Social Networks are adopted in ways that vary by culture. From LinkedIn's business network to Orkut's mostly Brazilian users, no two networks are the same. Expecting an application to work seamlessly for all applications is foolish; expect to research each community before customization.
  • Future authority not known: Although led by Google, this alliances appears to be a conglomerate of many different companies. It's not clear what the governing body will be... whether a single group, representatives, or Google itself.

Next Steps

  1. Wait and watch: Unless you already have successful widgets deployed on Facebook, wait a bit; no need to jump in; let the alpha teams build and break.
  2. Host internal discussion: In the meantime, have a brown-bag meeting with your development team and Web strategy leaders to discuss how existing applications could be repurposed, and what your future deployment road might look like.
  3. Develop strategy: Understand that this is a new sandbox, and if you decide to venture in, your efforts should be experimental and you need flexibility . Be sure to bake measurement into the start, so you can gauge and benchmark your progress.
  4. Educate: my Web Strategy blog has a new tag called OpenSocial; I'll be posting helpful information.

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Jeremiah Owyang is a Web strategist, speaker, and blogger/videoblogger focused on how companies use the Web to connect with customers. He is active on Twitter and can be followed at jowyang; if you follow him, he'll follow you back.

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