This past year for me was all about trying new services and technologies to solve core business problems for a changed consumer culture.

I downloaded scores of mobile apps. Participated in scads of betas for cool new products. Used web-based solutions for every possible thing I needed to know, do, purchase or share.

But the number one source for information, places to travel to, wines to drink, marketing tips or referrals wasn’t any of these new services, individual apps or even search.

It was my broad social networks and a few powerful vertical blog communities.

I have strong connections around my friends’ blogs and my own, but most of the information I get still comes from my social networks, especially the big three–Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

When I was in need of a new restaurant or wine bar in Paris, some consensus on whether social TV is a myth, data on vineyards in Friuli, Italy, the best source wasn’t Q & A services (there are many), or travel or wine apps, it came from my extended friend networks.

And if you are a business, you really have little choice but to look to these social networks as well to find customers.

Quite a surprise actually. Disappointing to discover that the deepest contextual connections are still within the broadest most horizontal platforms.

The irony is that a multitude of the smartest entrepreneurs are parsing the world of information, commerce and socialization to verticalize our life experiences with the intent of building more focused and efficient communities of interest.

The human experience has been dissected into atomic pieces and there are seemingly endless apps and community platforms targeting each one.

But few of them really worked for me.

I’ve got to wonder whether I’m the odd person out here. But I don’t think so.

Some of the verticals themselves aren’t a true standalone social behavior with community chops. Check in apps for movies and TV are for me a case in point. I’m a serious movie geek and share info often, but have not been able to use any of the many media community apps with any consistency.

Some are interesting but are missing the transactional piece as an offshoot of information. Wine communities (and there aren’t really any of import) have not solved the ‘how to buy’ piece and to hear about wine that you can’t find or buy is a non-starter. You end up with flash sales (Lot 18), media sites (Snooth) and a plethora of blogs with a lot of info but little sense of engagement.

Some are perpetually stuck in the chicken-and-egg state. They have no real value until they enough people and just can’t draw enough of a crowd to matter to the participants.

And many, as smart as they may be, are more product idea than market reality and are churning to find users without understanding their core promise or a sense of how community can inform their business model.

And some may be just too early to tell.

There are of course, a few that really work and set the bar high. But very few.

Look at Fred Wilson’s avc.com as an ideal. It’s a place with loose structure, deep context and strong leadership. It’s a magnet for the intellectually curious around the entrepreneurial endeavor. One of the real ‘places’ to hang out online. Arguably the most dynamic community on the web today. It truly adds to my life off and online, friendships and business both.

Small, still new, but with a more focused and smaller niche, for authors there are places like Wattpat. For knitters, Ravelry. For developers and programmers quite a few.

Music is a community vertical with deep success. Turntable.fm, exfm and Soundcloud are all remarkably exceptions, each in their own way. They really get who they are.

And on the marketplace side, Etsy and Polyvore stand out as communities driven around commerce.

What makes them all work, as different as they are from each other, is a sense of community.

Conversation and engagement are the key connectors. They may spawn commerce but they certainly forge a connection with real life. Friendships really do happen. As well as customers.

I’ve blogged on this theme of context as a filter and community as the core of commerce all year. It’s true and I’m convinced of its validity.

Yet it is just at its early beginning stages. There are remarkably few great examples. Maybe the time for them is just in front of us…like 2012.

Facebook and Twitter are powerhouses of connection, though not suited for conversation or engagement. Wildly heterogeneous and useful for certain of my vertical interests like marketing and wine, it’s just a matter of time before the communities relocate. This is a population without a base using Facebook as a proxy.

On Facebook connections do broaden but it is more exception than rule. You bump into interesting people then move the conversations elsewhere. You just can’t get to know someone there. It’s a nod of the hat, not a handshake.

Dynamic communities, many of them blogs are where life and business connections happen. There’s been a buzz that blogging is dead. Just plain wrong in my opinion.

The past week I’ve been reading all the year-end predictions. There are many. Endless lists of what will be hot and what not.

Mobile end points. Tablets. Cloud based portability of data. Personal empowerment. The driving force of individual passions. All very good and true as themes for the future.

For me though, the business landscape for next year is not about tools or new markets or waiting for the market to catch up with your innovation. It’s more about bridging the self evident market gaps.

Gaps between a population that has shifted in its consuming habits and businesses that are seemingly clueless in how to connect with them. Huge gaps in the platforms for referrals that really work. Gaps in financial services, travel, wine and community access to local services.

Not all of these are new. Many just don’t work yet. And almost all of them have tried to exist on Facebook. They are invariably the right idea in the wrong place.

We are at a time where community and marketplaces are both possible and needed. For information. For friendships. For business. And for social change.

We are at this unique, and very cool place where culture is changing, online and offline are no longer distinct, access to markets democratized, and technology a vastly powerful, affordable tool available to everyone.

This is all upside and possibilities.

And the simple truth is still key, that the web is not about commerce or information or things. It is about people. And that commerce and community will follow if you discover the right connection in a viable context for the people themselves.

This is nothing but opportunity for businesses and benefits for the consumer. The problem is  not scrambling for ideas but focus on which ones to pick.

2012…bring it on. I’m ready!

 

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