In the late 1980s and early 1990s, neuroscientists at the University of Parma discovered mirror neurons in our premotor cortex that fire when we perform an action and also when we observe others performing the same action. For example, the neurons that fire when we grasp a cup also fire when we see others grasp a cup. By mirroring the activities of others in this way, mirror neurons endow us with a built-in leaning toward empathy, social interaction and altruism.
We don’t always behave well in social settings, but because we are predisposed to social engagement, the rocketing rise of social networks makes sense. If, as some neuroscientists contend, the big ideas that stick are those that match brain structure and function, then social media are here to stay and will prove the naysayers wrong.
The discovery of our innate social faculty adds to our understanding of marketplace transactions. Embedded deep within dollar-and-cents exchanges are social exchanges of interpersonal connections – some good and some bad – that resonate to our very core.
What social networks have done is peel away the part of these exchanges that have always involved relationships. The relationships that matter most are family, and family means kinship. This is the currency of social networks. More and more these days, the currency of kinship must be spent first before any financial value can be realized, and this has big ramifications for growth opportunities in the marketplace ahead. Four warrant special mention.
First, happiness is the new metric of success. Relationships are a primary predictor of life satisfaction, so with the increasing importance of social networks and relationships, happiness will figure more prominently. Though brands like Zappo’s and Coke are touting happiness, it is not something most brands can do. But all brands can audit their consumer touchpoints to ensure that they are not upside down in their kinship accounts. This requires a different view of what relationships are all about.
Second, people relationships are coming to the fore. The heyday of brand relationships, quote/unquote, took off in the mid-1990s with the rise of one-to-one marketing. But in the heat of the moment, brand marketers lost sight of the fact that the idea of brand relationships is nothing but a metaphor about relationships to help marketers think about marketing investments. In reality, consumers don’t have relationships with brands; they have relationships with other people. Brands have utility; people have relationships.
The relationships people have with one another are where social networks add value. Social networks are forums where people can engage with other people. Many marketers shy away from social networks because people don’t talk specifically about their brands or categories. This misses the point. Social networks are a gathering place for relationships and brands should seek to facilitate or enhance those social exchanges. By making relationships among people more interesting and more valuable, brands can strengthen their position and value with consumers.
Third, marketers must persuade conversations not consumers. With social engagement more prevalent and more powerful, every marketing message is now subject to vetting by a crowd. No message finds its way to consumers absent the influence and input of others. It is the conversation that determines the impact of an ad not the way in which an individual encounters an ad in isolation. Traditional marketing and media models that embody an individualized encounter with advertising no longer reflect reality.
The old approach was to maximize share of voice; now it’s share of conversation. It used to be about talking loudly; now it’s about getting other people to do your talking for you.
Finally, the circles of intimacy are narrowing. The biggest trend in social networks is the shrinking of social connections. People only want relationships that matter. That means close relationships. They want kith and kin. As we have described it in Status Update, our Future Perspective white paper on social networks, the first of six pivot points shaping the future of social networks is a choice between Big Net and Tight Knit, and on this dimension small is the big trend.
Brand marketers will find themselves even more on the outside looking in as social networks narrow. But the opportunity is bigger than ever for brands that ensure the currency of kinship is never in short supply.
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