Social Objects And CPG Marketing

If you asked someone “What is it that anchors a brand, product, or service-oriented online community, or other social application?” what would they say? If they answered, “the brand, product, or service…” you’d be right to question it further.

It’s not a trick. It’s a realization that brands, products, and services – and the things related to them that you want your customers to know about may not be the same things that they are interested in socializing around. Product spots on TV aren’t “social”; they’re an interruption to the things that are themselves social. That they feature a product and make the case for why someone might consider it further is the entire point of the interruption.

Social interaction is different: it starts with the interest of the participant, not an interruption. Social interaction is built around social objects, defined by Glenn Assheton-Smith as “some ‘thing’ we share with others as part of our social media experience on the social web.” That “thing” might be a photo or conversation or a concern for the environment. Take a look at Assheton-Smith’s work and the work of Jaiku co-founder and Google product manager Jyri Engeström. Engeström coined the term “social object” as a label for the things that people socialize around, something he discusses in this video.

A lot of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands still place the product at the center of their social efforts, just as they do (correctly) in traditional media. They spend heavily and attract participants to brand-skinned “social” games that feature appearances from associated athletes and celebrities or create social microsites that include “discussions” of deodorant, for example. As awareness tools, these programs may work. But they’re not social applications. For a social application to be effective over the long run, the interests of the participants – and not those of the brand – must sit at the center. Smart brands are taking notice.

Coke has switched up its strategy. For example, moving from branded microsites built around products to participation in the larger social activities of its customers in places like Facebook, where the lifestyle associations of Coke are evident in the expressed passions for the brand – Coke has over 4 million members connected with its Facebook page. Pepsi’s “Refresh” project moves the brand out of the spotlight and replaces it with the interests and causes of Pepsi drinkers, who vote on participant-generated ideas that Pepsi then finds. In both of these, the social object is a passion, lifestyle, or cause. There are smaller social objects too: social sites like Flickr or Twitter are built around the actual content – photos and tweets, respectively. In none of these is the brand or product itself the center of the social activity.

When planning a social media program that includes a community or other activity center, consider the perspective of your expected participants. Here are some questions you can think about as you develop your plans:

  • What might participants have in common with each other?
  • How does your firm or organization fit into the above?
  • How can you improve the experience for them?

That last bullet is a big one: successful social media programs make stars of the participants, not the brands, products, and services. My colleague Kaushal Sarda referenced Kathy Sierra’s “Word of Obvious” in a recent post. At the core of the ideas expressed is the notion that when the participants in social settings – and by extension, customers in a social application relating to a business interest – are themselves the center of the action, their own engagement in that activity goes up. Way up. This is great for savvy marketers: on the social Web, significantly higher levels of engagement are possible as compared to traditional media. Instead of basic engagement (e.g., exposure or clicking), well-built social applications offer participative activities like rating and reviewing (curation), uploading content (creation), and direct participation (collaboration) in the design of the associated products and services.

Examples of strong social media programs include the ones you’ve probably read about – Dell and its “Digital Nomads” or “Take Your Own Path” communities, built around the lifestyles of specific customer segments. (Disclosure: My company has worked with Dell in the past.) AARP’s online community is likewise less about AARP, and more about the interests, needs, and desires of baby boomers and their parents. Pampers offers a great experience for new parents through Pampers Village. There’s plenty of information about the product and its use, combined with a community section that places new parents and their joys, concerns, and cares squarely at the center of the conversation.

Los Angeles-based Found Animals is building its social presence around the concern for pet adoption and the responsible practices of pet owners to define the services it provides in a way that’s aligned with the needs and interests of pet owners, associated agencies, and pets themselves. In all of these cases, the brands involved benefit by placing the interests of their customers and stakeholders – rather than themselves – at the center of the conversation.

When thinking through your social strategy, take the time to get the social objects right. Here are three easy steps to follow when building a community that features your brand, product, or service:

  1. Start by identifying a social object that connects to a unique aspect of your brand, product, or service.
  2. Identify social needs from the perspective of your customers that are met by or through this aspect of your chosen social object.
  3. Create a connection to these participants, and reinforce their place as the “center” of the activities that ensue.

By identifying the social objects that exist around your brand, and creating connections to your customers through these social objects, your products and services become natural elements of the conversations that follow.

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