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Branding and Social Media

Measuring Social Currency

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Technology journalist Stephen Baker got the New Year off to a provocative start with a headline question on The New York Times op-ed page. “Can Social Media Sell Soap?” he asked. Maybe not, he answered, echoing the not-so faint murmurs of social media disenchantment now being heard among brand marketers. It’s not that marketers are souring on digital; it’s just that social is proving to be particularly perplexing.

In Baker’s view, brand marketers are struggling with social media because “in a server farm packed with social data, it’s hard to know what to count.” Faced with this conundrum, marketers default to what they know already, and thus “the impact of new technologies is invariably misjudged because marketers measure the future with yardsticks from the past.”

In other words, the criteria used to assess social media are those that have long been used to assess old media. The problem with this is that new social media are not a faster, cheaper version of old media; they are a wholly new experience.

To put a sharper edge on it, by and large, brand marketers misunderstand the social paradigm. Social media don’t welcome marketing; therefore, force-fitting marketing into social media is a doubtful enterprise. Brands will succeed with social media only by helping social media do what they do more effectively, not by trying to reshape social media into a modern-day knock-off of traditional media.

The model by which traditional media operate puts advertisers in direct contact with consumers. Traditional media trade in content delivered by advertisers in exchange for attention paid to ads by consumers. The relevant metrics are related to attention – who saw what and to what effect.

Social media operate by a completely different model. From the very start, social media have put people in touch with other people, not consumers in touch with brands. They’re about social interactions between people. This is their inherent nature, and so they trade in the social currency of people sharing with other people. Metrics related to attention mis-measure this experience; investments guided by the traditional media model miss the mark.

Traditional media did not come of age as interactive technologies. A social model was not even a consideration because old media were unable to host two-way interaction. By contrast, new social media are inherently interactive. A social model is their heart and soul.

The exchange of content for attention with traditional media puts advertising squarely in the center of the equation because ads are the focus of attention. In that context, people are willing to accept ads as an irreducible element of traditional media. But in the social media exchange of social currency, ads are not integral to the experience, so ads are out of place.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of the essential difference between traditional and social media is itself an old technology – the telephone. In contrast to its traditional contemporaries of radio, TV and newspapers, the phone has never been a friendly medium for advertising because unlike the other three, it is interactive. Which just goes to show that in domains where social currency defines the experience, ads are out of place.

Unfortunately, brand marketers have been slow to grasp the crux of the social media experience. Social media are not about people having relationships with brands. Social media are about people relating to other people. It’s a social interaction between people, not an exchange with brands.

Admittedly, this is difficult for brand marketers to conceptualize. The standard practice is to engage consumers wherever their attention is directed. Every interaction is presumed to be open to some sort of exchange for attention. But this is just not true of social media interactions. These are like the telephone – not for interruption by marketers.

Social media are commanding a larger and larger share of mind. It will not suffice to flood the social media mindscape with more of the same. What people want nowadays is something to share with others not something more to watch. As Baker notes, “social networks, like them or not, are fast laying out a new grid of personal connections.”  Brand marketers must facilitate and foster people-to-people interactions by stocking people up with social currency they can spend on others. It’s not about commanding attention; it’s about building goodwill by enabling social connections.

The past was brand-centric; the future is relationship-centric – people having relationships with other people. The most successful brands of tomorrow will not be those that keep trying to get people’s attention. Instead, they will be the brands that prove their worth by giving people social currency to spend in social media. The key for marketers is to measure something other than attention to ads; otherwise, marketers will have no gauge of what matters most for social media.

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