Turn on, plug in, and connect: why social media is more than just a tactic

22 Oct 2010|Added Value

Twenty years ago, a teenager with headphones on in the back of the family car clearly wanted to be left alone. They were ‘tuning out’. Today, the chances are very strong (but, ironically, by no means guaranteed) that the same teenager is actually plugging in.

Depending on the device attached to the headphones, they could be chatting with friends, broadcasting new information about themselves via a social media site, following sports scores or participating in a larger civic venture – such as tracking detailed progress of elections in a certain country. Indeed, if the person concerned was in a country currently at the polls, they could well be feeding their own reports and / or videos into civic reporting aggregators, or simply into Twitter – which is increasingly playing an important global role as a virtual breaking news reporter. 

What people (and certainly not just teenagers) are doing – and what tools they are using on social media platforms – has become a point of major attention across the global economy. Many brands believe – with relative justification – that if they can tap into the booming popularity of social media networks they will be able grow their equity and successfully manage increasingly complex viral consumer feedback loops.

But a sole focus on the detail – on social media tactics, tools, trends and platforms – can mean brand strategists are permanently chasing their tails. There is considerable risk attached to developing campaigns utilising specific social media channels and technologies without an eye on the bigger picture – not least because such channels can easily lose market traction and / or relevance in the few short months required to take a strategy to market. 

Global leaders in the social media field are seeking to understand the social media phenomenon at its highest level – and brand strategists would do well to follow suit. Take, for example, the work of commentator and analyst Clay Shirky, who has coined the notion of global cognitive surplus.

Watch this video for more on cognitive surplus:

Shirky’s idea is pretty simple. In the 20th century mankind was in passive consumption and entertainment mode. Now, in the 21st century, new tools have allowed us to tap into our cognitive surplus (traditionally assigned to watching TV) and interact with each other socially – in civic and entertainment senses. We do this, according to Shirky, to fulfil a deep, instinctive desire to connect with each other.

Shirky’s idea is supported by recent studies in happiness and economics. According to Lord Richard Layard and other leading economists in the field, reported happiness levels in advanced economies have been largely unchanged since 1950. Research shows that when average annual personal income passes USD 20,000, people don’t become happier. In summary, rather than being directly self interested and obsessed with building personal wealth, modern man’s happiness or sense of well being can actually be defined by his or her sense of community. By the quality, in other words, of the individual’s connections with other people. And it is this social orientation that is pouring the rocket fuel on the social media fire.

Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea web site offers an interesting example of the dynamic at play in the brand context. The site engages involves consumers in the brand’s idea generation, experiential marketing and social responsibility. My Starbucks Idea has become a veritable community – one where Starbucks customers feel involved (because they are involved), and where transparency has taken on a whole new meaning.

As Shirky points out, Barak Obama redefined transparency in his deft treatment of the upsurge of anger from my.barackobama.com constituents over his change of heart on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Obama engaged his community without changing his decision, deflating a virtual (in both senses) revolution. In the process he showed that transparency (something many brands and politicians still use as a rhetorical device) is a powerful strategic asset in the age of social media.

And then there’s IBM’s blog universe, an (extremely) extensive blog portal encapsulating the thoughts and musings of IBM folk. The portal is engaging for staff bloggers, business partners and clients. Through their blogs IBM staff communicate with other professionals from their specific sector (from web development to software development to project management), as well as across their global organisation. Once again use of a social media by the brand centres on facilitating community interaction, in a largely organic and free-wheeling fashion.    

The core social media brand challenge is developing a strategy that caters to the fact that humans are connecting with each other at truly profound levels. Because they can, and because they really, really want to. Thus, while most brand analysts will be hailing recent social media campaign successes, the really smart ones will be figuring out how to replicate not the tactics, but the approach.

First published in the Business Day, South Africa.

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