From the way we browse the web, to the way we source information about products or services, everything about us social. We are a social species - it is one of the key reasons that we fared so well in evolution. And technology, at last, has given up its century-long crusade to isolate us from one another and is instead freeing us to rediscover our sociability and connect. For brands and marketers, the implications for the way we market and create products and services are huge.
How we choose what we will buy or use is becoming increasingly social. Digital channels and tools have confirmed what we always intuitively knew to be true: that we are most profoundly influenced by the behaviour of our social circle - experts we respect and look up to, but even more so our friends and family and immediate connections. These people have built up our trust over years, sometimes a lifetime, and we respect and often emulate their behaviour. We trust one another more than we trust the messages coming from brands.
Consider the likelihood you will read something a friend of yours posts on their Facebook wall versus if you were sent it directly by the brand. Amazon understands social influence when it prompts you with suggestions of what others are buying. TripAdvisor shows the destinations your friends have been to. And even Google is experimenting with social additions to its engine as it seeks to give people the most relevant content for their search.
They should realise, firstly, that trust is earned and not bought. It takes time, and it takes hard work. Brands now have to be good at what they do; they can't just spend money being loud at it. They need to think, and plan engagements, and respond. They need to weave themselves expertly and subtly into their audience's lives. Demonstrate the value of your brand in every action, because your actions are more important than your messages. Give your audience what they want. And give it generously. Whether that be useful or entertaining content, incredible experiences or the ability to connect with each other.
Identify the key influencers in your target market's social circles, and build genuine relationships with them. Don't use social media as new "channels" for the same old marketing content. Listen, banter, respond and demonstrate that the relationships are influencing the brand's messaging and even, sometimes, the offering. Building goodwill with your key influencers will ensure positive sentiment is spread socially with their larger networks.
Create opportunities for people who buy your brand to display that allegiance and share their experiences. But don't ever force it. Trying to bribe and reward people to encourage sharing is missing the point of social engagement and will not work for very long.
And never, ever lie. With social reviewing, recommending and exposing, nothing but the truth will survive. So make sure the truth about your organisation is the kind of thing you would be comfortable discussing with everyone, in public.
Getting all of this right may shake up the divisions in your organisation. As your brand becomes more social and responsive and engaged in the community, it may become increasingly difficult to separate PR from customer service, for example. The organisation itself will need to become more social, so that customer information and insight flow freely between functions and the customer experiences the brand as a consistent but living, social being. The next wave of evolution is upon us.
(As published on Marketing Mix April 2011)