Strong Opinions @marksbirch

Random thoughts from a NYC entrepreneur and investor about start-ups, technology and the people that make it all happen. Also find time for good tunes and good food.
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Contact management tools are an unmitigated disaster.  Some have suggested that social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn could fit the bill.  Unfortunately, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Social networks seem like a logical choice for managing one’s contacts.  They generally hold most of your important contacts in one place, gives you a pretty thorough view of your contacts, and keep you posted on what your contacts are doing.  On the surface, this fits pretty well into the three key functions of a solid contact management tool; maintains golden contact record, enables quick research, and keep you updated on relevant events.

The problem with using a social network for contact management is that their main purpose is to be social.  It is not an address book, it is not a CRM tool, and it is definitely not meant to increase your productivity.  Social networks want you to spend more time in their apps whether it for entertainment, news, or some other function other than looking up a contact.

A contact management tool on the other hand is about productivity.  A smart tool should make you more productive and get you out of the tool as quickly as possible.  The distractions should be kept to a minimum, and that is decidedly not a social tool.  It is the Google mentality; you do a search, get the relevant results quickly, and click to your destination.

There are a whole lot of specific points however where social networks fail as contact management tools.  These are only the more obvious problems faced by the major social networks, which for purposes of this discussion would be Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, and Twitter.

  • Friend Model – Social networks depend on direct connections between people.  Whether it is friending, following, connecting, or circling, the direct connection is what is required to pull in a person’s information.  There are many problems with this however, including the fact that people many not want to link to someone else’s network.  This is particularly true of people you may have just met or contacts you are only intermittently involved with.
  • Social Spam – There is a company called Plaxo that seemed promising at first.  It did an okay job with handling contacts.  What killed Plaxo was the spammy social network that they had incorporated into the tool.  People were barraged with connection requests that were simply distracting.  The second problem was that you were also barraged with everyone’s sharing across the various social networks which simply added to the noise.  It became a firehose of not useful information, and that is in essence what most social networks are, noisy bulletin boards.
  • Network Silos – None of the social networks play nicely with each other.  The most obvious example is the inability to easily pull Google contacts into Facebook.  However, why should they anyway if it is not in their best interests?  They need the walled gardens in order to trap their users into using and staying in their apps because their economic model is built on engagement and ad clicks.  This works against trying to create a golden contact record.
  • Relationship Separation - Even if the networks provided better tools to help pull contacts together, there is a question of whether people would want all their contacts in one social network.  You have personal contacts, professional contacts, and people that you have just met and are still wary to include in a network.  There are social norms and privacy concerns with who you let into your networks.  Google tries to solve this with circles, but the whole thing is hokey and confusing and decidedly not private.
  • Core Functionality – A quality contact management tool needs to have an efficient user interface and basic functions that maximize productivity.  You should be able to quickly find contacts, edit contact information, group contacts across a number of dimensions, and ship these contacts into some other app like a CRM or email tool.  Contact information should be standardized, current, and de-duplicated.  Important updates about contacts should appear in the contact record or as an alert based on relevance.  The tool should know what social networks the contact has a profile on.  I should have my contacts wherever I need them across web, phone, or other apps.  I could go on, but the point is that while some of social networks kind of address these points, the gap in functionality is pretty wide.

While any one of the social networks could make the requisite changes to address functional holes, the fact is that doing so in not in their DNA or even to their benefit.  It is like Google’s lame attempts at social or Facebook trying to do location check-ins.  These never work because they simply do not proceed in a way that is focused on what users actually need.  These leaps into other domains are on their own terms and within their own framework of thinking, which leads to failure every single time.

Contact management is not a feature.  That is exactly what it is to the social networks and most CRM tools oddly enough.  Contact management is an entire domain that has the potential to spawn really interesting products and ecosystems and perhaps useful CRM tools.  Already there are a few forward thinking startups that are getting it based on the responses to my previous essay.  These solutions could not come soon enough.

  1. marksbirch posted this