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Image via hitwise.com

A few days ago I suddenly realized that somewhere along the line, Facebook somehow became my go-to source for news. When the site’s redesign finally displayed in full-effect this week, I even wondered if that’s where they were intentionally headed to next- turning themselves into a one stop shop for all of my online needs. Today, a friend confirmed my suspicions: according to new data from Hitwise, Facebook is in fact the world’s largest aggregated news reader, above Google or anyone else. So how did this happen, and where do I think it’s headed next?

I’ve been trying to sell friends on the idea of using RSS for years, but not too many seem to grasp the concept or usefulness of a news reader (and those that do say they’d rather visit the webpages individually so they “don’t miss anything that could be interesting”.) It wasn’t until Facebook’s News Feed came along that I finally had a way of visually explaining exactly what a RSS does to people who didn’t know and were having trouble understanding. (“Oh, like Facebook! I got it.”) The fact of the matter is that Facebook is one of the only sites thus far that has consistently utilized and simplified old and new online technology (RSS, customizations, short-links, embedding) and then trained the average user to use these functions without the user even needing to know how they’re doing what they’re doing. As allfacebook.com‘s Nick O’Neill said recently, “The best technologies don’t need explanations of how they work, they just work.”

Though I’ve heard people say that Facebook is as much of a trend as Myspace, I’d like to be one of the first of many to argue that they’re wrong. For what was a small college project 6 years ago has quickly evolved into one of the most massive online powerhomes to date. Now, between their newest layout and murmurs of Project Titan, it has become very clear that Facebook does not plan on going anywhere anytime soon. And why should it?

The reality is, the more overwhelmed our world becomes with information, and the more accessible that information is, the more likely we are to seek news, products, and services from people we know and trust rather than “randomly searching” out in the ether. Facebook is unique in that it allows us to not only share the news and information that matters to us, but also have a personal discussion about these issues with friends and family a thousand or more miles away on a daily basis. It simultaneously gives us insight, good or bad, while filling that void for human socialization, providing the everyday interaction with other people that we so primally crave. No longer are we relegated to discuss an article on a comment board with people we don’t even know; instead, we can easily gain a wealth of opinions and ideas from the people we value the most in our lives, openly debating these subjects from the comfort of our living room couches.

So where am I going with all of this? For starters, this is huge news for content providers (as well as for advertisers.) While Facebook already dabbles in “targeted” advertising to some extent, if the ads that pop-up in my Facebook sidebar are any indication of what the website thinks of me, then I think they are being quite presumptuous. But with the addition of a more news reader friendly homepage, and the ability to add your favorite RSS feeds and blogs to your News Feed (thusly creating a personalized news channel), poorly targeted ads could be a thing of the past. Not only can Facebook now monetize Ad Views more successfully, but give the average user more useful ads as well. Each user’s demographics, interests, friend circles, and news preferences are at the site’s fingertips- they simply have to integrate a powerful meta data search function to capitalize on what is already there (the wheels of which I’m sure are already in motion behind the giant curtain.)

Despite these new advances that may help to pull the site out of the red, there’s still the looming question of whether or not Facebook will eventually charge for access once it becomes an invaluable if not necessary asset to our daily online usage. Even though I’m on-board for a low-cost per year model, given the transparency of the internet, why do such a thing? Instead, I propose that Facebook presents each user with an array of choice advertisers for them to opt-in and personally discuss on a monthly basis. By targeting the demographic that each advertiser wants their message to be received by, the site can still find revenue where it counts while simultaneously creating a user-generated open forum where all positive and negative comments can be heard, discussed, and reviewed by various companies to further meet their consumers’ needs. Many brands already have fan pages that are highly successful examples of this feedback model. I say take this a step further and create an integrated marketplace that thrives on it.

Initially, this model may not seem like it could provide the ROI that most advertisers claim to seek. But the proof is in the pudding here folks- how many advertisers can actually produce a detailed analysis of their ROI from the millions they spend on magazine or TV ads? Newspapers? (The only significant report to date that I can remember reading about advertisers being able to track the cost effectiveness of advertising was actually, believe it or not, through social marketing, and it was in reference to Dell Outlet’s Twitter feed, which now boasts over 600k followers.) Advertisers need to stop looking at their ROI in terms of dollars and brand awareness, and start looking at it in terms of customer loyalty and brand integrity, because that’s where the real money lies. The same brand awareness that they get on TV is now achievable (and more specifically targetable) online, but by focusing on constantly improving their products rather than their sales pitches, they will finally create a connection with the people who matter the most: their consumers.

(And isn’t that what this is all about?)

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image via inventorspot.com

All jokes aside, I can hardly believe it’s been almost a week and I haven’t had a chance to sit and filter through all my ideas that I’ve wanted to blog about 5x a day and hammer out the ones that are the most interesting to me. (I can’t wait until I have a real job again and have time for this stuff!!!)

So… I’m guessing you all know by now that the iPad came out last week. Yes? Good. (No? I’m giving you the benefit of a doubt that you were either in a snowstorm in the Midwest without power for the last week, or that you made a pact with yourself to avoid any sort of external media stimulation until the beginning of February.)  From the moment that Steve Jobs announced Apple’s newest (and to date, most poorly named) gadget, there have basically been three schools of thought: the cynics, the skeptics, and the true believers.

The cynics have written articles for many a tech blog, moaning about what it can’t do, what it doesn’t have, how it’s basically a giant rock with wi-fi and a big shiny screen, and why they will never buy one. The skeptics are the people who are writing for outlets like the FT and Economist; they see the potential usefulness of this product, but will wait for the 2nd generation of products before forking over half a grand or more. And the true believers, well, they are simply Apple loyalists through and through. They will often buy before they even beta test, and they will buy again when a new model is released. Whether this is because they need the latest and greatest thing or because they simply trust the brand is debatable, but rest assured- no matter what the newfangled device does, they want it and they will get it.

Asking me what category I fall into on this issue is the equivalent of asking me what political party I affiliate myself with. (If pressed to answer, that affiliation would be Libertarian, which is rarely a check-box option on the paperwork, but this is beside the point.) What I’m saying is that there should be a fourth school of thought added to this debate, a group of people that are out there vocalizing not the strengths or weaknesses of this new piece of technology, but rather, the entirely new interactive advertising market that has been created by it.

Personally, I have yet to get my hands on one (although I hope to change this soon.) But already I can see the potential that it holds, with or without touching it. Do I think it will replace your laptop or desktop computer? No. (At least not yet, unless you are already an avid cloud computer and iPhone user.) Do I think it will replace your cell phone? Not at all, unless we are going back to the days when Zack Morris held up his super cool cinderblock sized cell phone for the rest of the Saved by the Bell gang to admire over fries and cokes at the Max. (And personally, I hope we don’t go there, as I refuse to develop an affinity for large-pocketed cargo pants or man purses.)

So where does it fit in? I think the point that people are missing here is that the iPad was not created as a device to replace anything. Rather, it was created as a device to support and interact with other devices. (Why else would it only run one application at a time?) Think about it this way: Would you like to comment on a TV show while you’re watching it or a game while you’re playing it? No longer will you have to clutter half of your prime viewing real estate with that chat and comment sidebar and risk your video skipping a beat- now you can simply sync your iPhone and comment from there while watching said program on your iPad. (And yeah, I know it doesn’t support Flash yet, but they’re working on it!) Or sync your iPad with your computer while watching said program on your Mac/PC, using the iPad to comment without needing to have a physical keyboard within reach. Want to manipulate photos, thoughts, ideas, maps, on a screen bigger than a deck of cards? I’m sure the iPad can do this too (among other things.)

Interestingly enough, a lot of advertisers are currently about 5 steps behind in terms of tech knowledge. Little specialized boutique social marketing firms are popping up all over the internet, but these companies seeking advice from said firms should already be integrated into the various social networks and ready to move on to the next step. (See my Twitter post from about a week ago.) And what do I think that next step is? Interactive advertising. I’ve discussed the notion of a two-way conversation with your targeted audience briefly before, and it’s technology like the iPad that’s going to step an advertiser’s game up. It’s as simple as seeing a commercial for Tide laundry detergent or Colgate toothpaste while browsing the internet on your touchscreen device, then touching the ad to send a coupon to your smart phone that’s already synced and networked. (No need to fill out information and request an email- all they’ll need to target you in the future is your remote IP.) It’s making a touch-screen matching game or puzzle that is an escape from whatever you do daily, which also rewards you with for being a valued customer with incentives and promotions. (You win, they win.) It can even be as minorly complicated as presenting all the new models of sports car that someone like Nissan has to offer, and being able to bluetooth a version of that vehicle with true to life driving specs to your Playstation or Xbox or regular laptop/desktop so you can test it out on a universal platform driving game, leaving a link open on your iPad to rate your experience and give feedback (and tell you where to go IRL to test drive that bad boy, once again pushing a message over to your smart phone with directions and contact information of the closest car dealer.)

Syncing. Organizing. Simplifying. These are all things that the iPad can do for both the producer and the consumer. It is potentially the much-needed bridge in our technology gap. We as consumers are not difficult to please: as in any relationship, we want to be told that our time, loyalty, and opinions matter and are valued by whomever we are interacting with. Otherwise, we know there are greener pastures elsewhere that will meet our needs.

Because in a world of 2.0 where everyone is constantly fighting to be heard, the grass oftentimes IS actually greener on the other side (as well as organic, sustainable, receptive to feedback, and, well… you get my drift.)