Inline: The fusion of the real and virtual worlds

Facebook: created timeline for fictional character Andy Sparks
Facebook: created timeline for fictional character Andy Sparks

The fusion of the online and offline world is a key trend for marketers, but, warns Nicola Clark, they should focus on what's real.

You cannot rewrite history; you can however, edit your Facebook profile. Drunken nights out, questionable outfits and equally questionable relationships can be forever erased.

Facebook reports that, since the launch of its revamped timeline design, users have dedicated 'considerable time and effort' to recreating and editing their timelines - or, to put it more bluntly, erasing their past mistakes.

Speaking at last week's Social Brands conference, Alexander Schlaubitz, director of customer marketing at Facebook, said users were spending a lot of time rebuilding their narrative.

'Some people say Facebook is the triumph of the banal, but what people are doing, whether uploading a picture of their food or discussing something minor, is simply replicating real life,' he said. In essence, conversations are flowing between the virtual and real worlds and the boundaries between the two are blurring.

This fusion, creating the 'inline' world, is set to be one of the biggest trends to affect marketing over the next 12 months and beyond, according to research from The Lounge Group.

So where does this leave marketers? Companies lining up to integrate their customer data with the social graph must assume that in the 'inline' world, consumers' virtual and real selves are one and the same.

This notion is supported by Facebook, which launched the new-look timeline by telling the fictional story of 'Andy Sparks', charting the key moments of his life from graduation to the birth of his first child. It is an intimate journey - in the words of Facebook, 'the story of you'.

Crucially, however, it is just that, a story; a linear, entirely positive journey where we can erase the ups, downs and sometimes unimaginable tragedy that create the patchwork of real life.

Inline is a key trend, but marketers must guard against confusing the virtual 'story of you', which consumers make public, with the truth.

THE UPSHOT

What the coming together of the online and offline worlds means for marketers

- Digitise the experience

While they may heavily edit their Facebook profiles, consumers no longer segment their online and offline worlds in the way they once did. Brands need to layer virtual experiences and information with real-world experiences to provide consumers with a richer, more interactive and personal experience.

- Socialise the experience

The spread of smartphones has fuelled consumers' natural socialisation and increased the demand for real-time response. Affordable, fast-advancing technology is empowering consumers to extend their social horizons and meet like-minded individuals. Brands that can help facilitate these interactions in real time, through technology such as GPS, will cut through.

- Personalise the experience

Brands need to help consumers forge relevant and rewarding connections, not just through virtual communities but also in the real world. In practice, this means creating practical and personalised apps, with tips and recommendations tied to their interests.

- New sensitivities

Many consumers live on social networks, so there is a host of potential landmines for brands. Cyber bullying is well-documented, but social networks have been facing, sometimes complex, teething problems - for example, the profiles of one-time users, now deceased, which remain on the site, are shuffled through Facebook's algorithms and served up as suggested friends. In the 'inline' world, brands need to show the same degree of sensitivity as they would in the real world and accept no excuses from media owners if they fail to do the same.

Nicola Clark is Marketing's head of features. Follow her on Twitter: @nickykc

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