The social graph is not a new thing. The concept has been spoken about since at least the 1960s and is simply a way of representing (drawing) all the connections between people. Imagine a small island community of three people with no links to the outside world; you could represent this community as a social graph – showing all three connected to each other.
As well as people we might add on other things – places, events, animals – and so use a social graph to show the connections between all of these objects rather than just between people.
The concept of the social graph is not a new thing, and it is not unique to social media. But what social networks do provide is a systematised way of storing these objects and these connections. Facebook is currently the largest social graph in the world but any social network builds a social graph based on what you tell them about yourself, who you connect to and the actions you do.
A simple social graph
An example of Facebook, the biggest social graph
Facebook, for example, knows who you are friends with (and who they are friends with). It knows when you and a friend are connected by an event (that you both attend) or by a photo (that you are both in), or by a film (that you both ‘Like’), or by some music (that you have both listened to on Spotify). It then stores this data in a systemised way and so has structured data on you, your life and the way all of the things around you connect. Think of it as a mass of data that can be used to help to define an individual. And Facebook gives brands access to this through their ‘Open Graph’ API.
Benefits for Facebook
For Facebook the benefits of building and storing these social graphs is obvious – the more they know about an individual, the more they can tailor and personalise their experience and the more useful Facebook becomes to them. They can use this data to monetise the network – mainly by selling targeted advertising. They currently earn almost $1.20 a year from every individual Facebook member, and the more data they collect the better then can personalise the experience and the more they can earn. Finally, the quicker they build an individual’s social graph, and the more information they capture in it, the bigger the barrier they build to others being able to come in and compete with them.
Benefits for Facebook members
For the individual members of Facebook there are benefits too. Whilst personalisation can be difficult to get right, there is no doubt that a personlised experience can be much more useful to an individual than a more generic one. It helps you suggest things that they might actually want to read, things you might actually be interested in, and even show you adverts for things you might actually want to buy. The more data you share with Facebook, the better they can personalise your experience and more useful you will find it. Of course, you need to remember to be informed about what you choose to share and why.
Benefits for brands
It is probably fair to say that brands so far have not taken the most advantage of the social graph. Partly this is because many are still experimenting with social media and many think of it just as a way to engage and build their own communities and networks, rather than exploring the pure data benefits that they can get. But applied correctly, brands can use this data to provide a better targeted and more personalised service, and even to help shape products themselves. Whether you are Amazon, using Facebook’s social graph to help you choose products for your friends’ birthdays, or KLM using Facebook and LinkedIn social graphs to help you choose who to sit next to on the plane, there are opportunities across sectors and audience types. In fact the biggest barrier to brands using the social graph effectively is their own creativity and ability to explore how the data they can get from social graphs (including Facebook) can help your business. And the biggest opportunity is to explore ways that data from these social graphs can be combined with a brands own proprietary data to build a bespoke data set that can let you develop products and personalise services for customers.
All brands should be exploring and understanding the different social graphs out there (including Facebook’s) and the data that these can offer. Social media is much more than just a means of communicating to and engaging with people. In fact the possibilities that this kind of data offers can often be much more interesting.