How human should brands become?

1 12 2010

We, social media, as an industry, forget that the roots and outcomes of what we do lie in the realm of face to face conversation; that is, face to face conversation – its nature, effectiveness and accomplishments, should guide the use of social media from an engagement and community perspective.

Social media interaction, when considered on a spectrum, lies somewhere in between face to face communication and email – synchronous vs. asynchronous; distanced vs intimate. Impersonal, personal and hyperpersonal, it exists in a public space, governed by the social norms of groups. So what does this mean for business and brands?

Brands are facing a unprecedented cultural challenge because businesses are expected to behave as people, interacting with people, which they do not. Yes, while corporate entities possess personhood in a legal sense, they have not operated nor participated (read marketed) traditionally as a person. In social media however, they are required to behave this way or a brand may only show and confirm they are antiquated.

Face to face communication allows for multi sensorial communication ( = a rich medium) and the ways we are wired in terms of social media means we have more complex information coming towards us – more signals which allow us to behave appropriately or be relevant in public. So why do we see so much push marketing and self BS online? Why do we see social media brands behaving badly?

What do I mean by behaving badly? Think about what the following would look like if performed face to face:

- shaking hands with everybody

- uber congratulating oneself and one’s closest friends c.f. politicians

- invite entire companies to every meeting

- speaking about oneself ad nauseum

- 10,000 sentences (aka tweets) in 12 months…

None of these behaviors would be appreciated face to face. But they happen all the time online. Brands (personal or business) beware.

The point is we tend to make comments about social media as an individual activity – yet it is also a collective or business, group activity – bounded by those rules and similar expectations.

So how to explain social media from a collective, body corporate point of view?

1. Do a reality check – what would be the consequence of this action if I was to do this face to face? Trust and other relational activities like friendship, group membership, influence, power, sharing etc are governed by face to face norms. This is not to say that face to face is the gold standard, only to say that this is how we understand the world relationally and that try as we might, we seek to replicate this way of understanding in our social worlds online. For example, as a brand, I offer discounts online all the time. What would happen if I did this at a party and I discounted what I am doing to everybody? Such an action is oblivious to face to face standards. What about suggesting to make it to 10,000 fans on a facebook page?

2. We have created standards based on personal branding practices. We speak about social media practices and we advise businesses based on our personal experiences but are these directly translatable? There is a wide gap between acting as a person and acting as a brand. Online, businesses still struggle to become personable and trustworthy. Non human actors are being required to humanize themselves. But is this realistic?

There is no doubt that the more human brands are, the more successful they are. People are able to connect to them more easily – an experiential vs. transactional process. The multiplex channels of face to face allow us to talk about experiences – we share experiences not transactions. Brands should too (e.g. think about check-in, discount-tweet fatigue).

3. Social media tools –are only tools/enablers. Strategies have to humanize a brand via face to face–esque interaction which will create a continuum of experience or which will experientialize a relationship between a brand and its constituency.

4. Coordination – businesses need to behave as coordinated, holistic entities, as people, which means that people can now call them out on the inconsistencies in their behavior. If they don’t bother to listen to what people say about them, how can they even begin to know how to change? Just as any face to face conversation provides multiple opportunities to reflect and act reflexively, so does social media, if treated correctly. The right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing because communities and the greater public are watching (for example, Nestle, GAP, DKNY…etc). People who have good experiences, or even good conversations with brands, and who feel they have been heard, will be advocates – so brands need to engage them further to help build trust with others and act as referrors for them.

So how human can brands become? What do you think?

@YannR @Extanz

Thanks to joaoloureiro for the photo composition.


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