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Plone in the New Marketing and Data Portability Era

Coming up soon is the Plone Strategic Planning Summit at the Googleplex in Mountain View, where about 50 people from all over the Plone community meet to discuss the future of Plone (more on the actual summit in a later post). Many people have taken this as a reason to post their ideas how Plone might look like in the future, such as Martin Aspeli, Alexander Limi and many others (many of them also on the mailing lists).

So I thought I might also write down my idea about the future.

The scenario

The world has changed. At least the marketing world. The era of mass marketing and advertisment as we knew it for many years has passed. Of course TV is not dead but it’s more and more superceded by the internet with all it’s channels for niche entertainment and self expression. Banner blindness and shrinking advertisement effectiveness have added their part. And so companies look out for other ways to reach potential and existing customers.

The Cluetrain Manifesto started it and many people such as Seth Godin, Mitch Joel, CC Chapman and many others have followed in forming what is sometimes known as „New Marketing“. This is by now getting adopted by more and more companies after they learned how to change themselves to leverage the power of these new marketing channels.
It’s a world where not the company is in the focus but the customer.

Add to that the success of the DataPortability Working Group which set policies and technical guidelines in how to create a World Wide Web in which data is more freely flowing around than ever before bringing us closer and closer to seamless networking experience and a semantic web.

Introducing Meatballs Inc.

Meatballs Inc. has setup a new website based a few months ago. Pete and Andy have been working hard to set choose the right system and setup the basic infrastructure for publishing content. Everybody so far is happy with it.

Now the marketing team together with management worked over the course of a few months on a new marketing strategy as they feel that TV, newspaper ads or on the WWW banner ads do not really work anymore. They see their competitors more and more using new methods of marketing and they don’t want to fall behind. They hired some communication experts and together with Meatballs own Sarah and Amy they plan to change this. Most of the decisions here were not of technical nature but more about how the company itself works like implementing a communication policy for their employees and so on.

Sarah and Amy then look at the website and encounter that a lot needs to be done in this field because while it features great functionality in getting content out from the company to their customers it does have nearly no possibilities in starting a conversation with their customer. What clearly is needed is a different type of website which moves away from the company being in focus towards the customer being in focus.

After crafting up some concepts they want to make this happen and look for components to use. Luckily Plone has much of what they need already builtin or available as separate package.

Let the users in!

So the first thing they enable is the Social Networking Layer which instantly brings a way for registering, building relationships, invitation and more components to the site. This layer also follows the guidelines of Data Portability and thus it’s then easy for visitors to find their friends on the site without redefining every relationship.

For instance registration is just a matter of providing your email address which automatically will be used as an OpenID via YADIS (if available for that address) using the email/OpenID gateway proposed by Eran. An account is created automatically and the only thing the visitor is asked which permission she wants to give her contacts regarding this site (e.g. if they can see whether she uses that site or not). The site then automatically has access to the portions of her profile and her contact network she allows.

Because Amy thinkgs that the Meatballs Inc. site would also be a great starting point for new users she enables those features which allow visitors to create a profile and let the website act as their personal relationship hub. From then on people can store, edit and delete their contact relationships with this site which in turn delivers this information to other sites enabling a global social network instead of a fragmented one as it was even back in 2008.

Visitors now can theme their profile, add OpenSocial widgets and let it serve as an OpenID or as a redirection to another existing OpenID. Needless to say that Plone support both the 1.x and version 2 of OpenID (plus preliminary support for the upcoming v3). All information in the users profile  are of course marked up with microformats or FOAF for those allowed.
Another great feature of Plone is also to automatically collect information for the user. Just giving some bits of information Plone automatically queries services such as the Google Social Graph API  and others to automatically build an initial contact list.

Having identified users is one thing, to make use of them a different one. The first thing Saray adds to the site is of course a blog. Setting up blogging in Plone is easy and straightforward and nevertheless offers a lot of options due to the flexible plugin system. After she has done that every employee is now a potential blogger and can help to build up the company’s community.

Of course blogging is not blogging without commenting and Plone offers state of the art here, too. Comments can be moderated, optional captchas are available, spam protection via akismet and much more. Even spam protection via social network relationships is possible, letting only such users leave comments who are not further away from an existing site user by x degrees.
Commenting allows even recording of a message via either audio or video (using Flash and a connected webcam) or uploading them. The relevant people inside the company will be notified and the new comment will show up in the users lifestream which is available to all the contacts allowed to see it.

Similar flexibility is offered by other components such as the forum, time scheduled chatrooms or even the Second Life gateway which lets the company easily connect to their virtual presence Amy is actively building at the moment. If needed Plone could even act as an Agent Domain with the simple installation of an addon package. With this package it’s also possible to connect the virtual chat with the web based chat room, IRC or oth
er IM gateways. Plone also has integrated COMET support so providing these things is easy.

Use the social networking power

Now Meatballs Inc. also has a lot of products and these are also available on the site. The only problem is that there is a plethora of them and customers are easily lost.
Sarah and Amy now think about changing this. Thank to opening up their websites to the many social connections of the visitors it’s now easy to use these relationships for recommending products. Instead of having a global rating system as it was long used on the web Plone features an easy way of making weighted recommendations possible. This means that a product’s rating is weighted by who rated it, closer friends counting more than those not so close. Other parts of the profile information might also be taken into account such as age or gender. This gives the site an easy way of targeted product placement.

But it does not need to stop there. Users can even be enabled to download their APML profiles for later personal use such as filtering the everlasting stream of new information from the web. They can use their APML profile in e.g. their newsreader to filter out those items which seem to be of no interest for that person. Needless to say that Plone therefore needs to record every click for every user to construct these profiles.

Extending it and sharing it

After a while some employees wish to also be able to do podcasts or video blogs. No problem of course, Amy just switches it on and from then on it’s possible to upload video or audio files which are automatically converted into the necessary formats (Amy configures mp3, m4a and ogg for audio, HD, iPod and flv for video). Sarah then enables the ability to automatically upload videos to YouTube, and other services in the background. Comments done on these sites will automatically synchronized back to the original entry on this website.

Another option Sarah and Amy want to explore is providing an API for their products database. The whole database is stored in SQL because other systems need to access it aswell but hooking this up into Plone was easy. The advantage is now that the whole Plone feature set is available to that data, too. All what was needed was to configure a simple adapter which maps the SQL data to a content type created before. Enabling a simple RESTful API was as easy as that. Amy even decided to allow limited write access to product annotations via that API. Because only registered users should be allowed to do that she additionally enabled the integrated OAuth component for it.

How far is this away?

This of course is only a glimpse of what might be necessary tomorrow. And the question is of course how far this tomorrow is away. Several things are of course available already or being worked on. The Google Social Graph API is there, blogging and commenting in Plone is worked on, Multimedia support is available, OpenID is as well (but maybe could be enhanced).
Creating a social networking layer using e.g. plone.relations and membrane is not too complicated to implement and marking things up with microformats is also no magic.

The things which might take some time are of course the Data Portability work as the individual groups have just started to work on it but promising projects such as DiSo or NoseRub are already on it’s way and backed by influential people. And the whole Second Life story should be available in a first version in about 1 – 1.5 years from now.

Plone already is powerful and because of it’s well crafted components it should be easy to implement much of the stuff without much hassle. The dominant problem is probably speed but I think this will be one of the main things addressed more in depth in the near future.

PS: The logo above is the new logo, I love it!

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