why the “social object” is the future of marketing

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From my previous post:

The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that “node” in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.

I’ve often gone on record with the statement, “Social Objects are the future of marketing”. This post will attempt to explain further why i believe that.
THE BAD OLD DAYS: MARKETING IN THE AGE OF HYPER-CLUTTER.
We have just come through a hundred-year long era, called the “Mass Era”.
Mass Media and Mass Production came of age at the same time. We try to separate the two, and we cannot.
A few decades ago, the local car dealers in town gave you a choice of four or five models. Now your choice is in the many dozens. There are well over a dozen varieties of Coca Cola. And thousands of different drink combos you can buy at any Starbucks on any given day.
I can sing you jingles for Nestle chocolate bars, from commercials I haven’t seen in over twenty years. That’s how cluttered my mind is. And yours is probably not that different.
Why would any sane person think that swimming in a polluted sea of commercial messages was fun for people? Messages are not information.
In this hyper-cluttered landscape the mediocre marketer will say, “I know! Let’s add another item of clutter to the cultural landfill! Lets increase the noise-to-signal ratio!!!”
And then he wonders why it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because we’re ignoring you now. You had our attention for a while, but as you know, it was more a cultural accident than anything you really had any true control over.
The world has moved on, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Your boss also suspects this may be the case, but thankfully for your career, he hasn’t brought it up in a meeting. Yet.
THEN ALONG CAME THE INTERNET…
I can’t help wondering if the internet coming along at the same time as the Hyper-Clutter Era reaching critical mass was a historical accident, or did the internet evolve as fast as it did in order to circumvent the Hyper-Clutter? I’m guessing the latter. If the purveyors of one-way conversations had offered something more sustainable and satisfying, maybe our need to “talk to real human beings” again would not have been so pronounced.
Now, when you buy something, you don’t phone up the company and order a brochure. You go onto Google and check out what other people- people like yourself- are saying about the product. In terms of communication, the company no longer has first-mover advantage. They don’t ask your company for the brochure until your product has already jumped through a series of hoops that SIMPLY WERE NOT there twenty years ago.
YOU NO LONGER CONTROL THE CONVERSATION. THEN AGAIN, MAYBE YOU NEVER DID.
Human beings are much better at recognizing the linear, rather than recognizing the random and exponential.
1 Oh No! There’s a sabre-tooth tiger heading my way!
2. Run!
That is linear. Our caveman ancestors found it a most useful quality.
We run an ad. Sales go up. So taking the Caveman cue, we frame it in a linear fashion to explain to ourselves the cause and effect.
“People liked our ad so much, they dropped what they were doing, sped down to Wal-Mart and bought our product!”
If only.
What happened was probably more random. You saw an ad for Brand X. A few days later you’re having coffee over at your friend, Pam’s house. She has Brand X on her kitchen counter.
“I saw that ad for it the other day,” you say. “Is the stuff any good?”
“Yeah,” she says. “It’s not bad.”
So the next time you’re in the supermarket, you see the product, and buy it. Ker-chiing.
The ad didn’t make the sale. Your friend made the sale, not the ad. The ad merely started a conversation.
This is what they call “Word-Of-Mouth”. When it works, it works very, very well. The main problem is, it rarely does. The marketer has little control of the outcome.
But the marketer’s boss doesn’t want to hear it. The marketer wants to tell his boss this, even less. So we construct mythologies to disguise the fear. Disguise the unknown. Disguise the random, in the world where UNCERTAINTY AND RANDOMNESS MUST NOT BE ALLOWED TO TAKE OVER THE MATRIX. EVER.
YOU AND PAM, HAVING COFFEE.
Pam just sold you a box of Brand X. Pam doesn’t work for Brand X, Pam gets no commission from Brand X, so why did she make the sale, inadvertently, or otherwise?
Go back to what I said in my last post about Social Objects:

The final thing to remember is that, Social Objects by themselves don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it’s nice hanging out with Lee talking about Star Wars. But if Star Wars had never existed, you’d probably still enjoy each other’s company for other reasons, if they happened to present themselves. Human beings matter. Being with other human beings matter. And since the dawn of time until the end of time, we use whatever tools we have at hand to make it happen.

When you and Pam met for coffee, you interacted with each other in the context of what anthropologists call “Object-Centerd Sociality”. In other words, you did not socialize in a vacuum, you socialized around objects, you socialized around things. You talked about the Cubs game last week. You talked about how Billy was doing in Third Grade. You talked about this great movie you just saw. You talked about great Pam’s coffee was. And yes, you talked, however briefly, about Brand X. All these things you talked about, an anthropologist would call “Social Objects”. And the thing is, you came over just to chew the fat with Pam. Talking about Billy or the movie or the Cubs game was not part of any pre-agenda. You could’ve talked about other things- books, records, home furnishings, it doesn’t matter- and you would’ve enjoyed your coffee with Pam just as much.
Yes, a lot of socializing is random. Ergo, yes, a lot of marketing is also random.
SO WHERE DOES SOCIAL OBJECTS FIT IN, FROM NOW ON?
From now on you won’t have the TV Commercials to rely on to start your conversations. People are ignoring you. Mass media has simply gotten too expensive. The only way your product is going to spread is by word of mouth. The only way it’s going to get word of mouth is if there is something in it for the person talking about it.
The person you want talking about is not doing it for the money. She’ll only talk about it if it serves as a Social Object. A “hook” to move the conversation along. A hook she can use it as a way to relate to her fellow human beings.
THE BAD NEWS IS, MOST PRODUCTS ARE BORING. THE GOOD NEWS IS, MOST WORD-OF-MOUTH IS BORING.
If you’re an average marketer, chances are that Alas! you don’t sell Mercedes’ or Apple iPods for a living. You probably sell some fairly prosaic, utilitarian product. Like Brand X.
Obviously, if your product is more conversation-worthy, like a Mercedes or an iPod, your job will be easier. Nice work if you can get it.
But let’s face it, average people are never going to sit down and have a deep and meaningful conversation about Brand X. But hey, maybe over coffee, a couple of little soon-forgotten sentences from somebody like Pam, is enough to make the sale.
I’m fond of saying, “If your product is not a Social Object, why are you in business?”
But of course, as Pam just proved, your product, Brand X, IS INDEED a social object. Just maybe your team needs to hone its thinking a little bit.
[Bonus Link from Jyri Engestrom:] “Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality.”

 

Comments

  1. Hugh, thanks for thinking this through. To me, the bad news is that over the next n months/years, a whole crap-ton of Brand X’s are going to buy ads to say why their product is worth talking about. Worse yet–they might try to apply pay-per-click to real products and try to offer mini-commissions for selling their product. (Everyone gets a coupon code…)

  2. ..and when we can’t get the word-of-mouth conversation going, we’ll use hypersonic advertising to adroitly drop it into consumer’s conversation.
    “So I told Bill..”
    “..that Coke is it. Er, where did that come from?”

  3. Thanks for this Hugh, it sets it out well. Two things I’d add:
    i) I think it’s oversimplifying marketing to say it always worked through the intermediary of a social object. It also works by creating an image in your mind (all that aspirational, lifestyle stuff), and more prosaically by just logging the brand name. You could argue that you are creating a social object with yourself I guess.
    ii) I wonder if there are any products that aren’t social objects? Toothpaste? Underwear? Or maybe it’s more of a continuum – some things are more ‘social objecty’ than others. For instance, an iPod touch – very objecty, my socks, less so.
    Martin

  4. hugh macleod says:

    Funny you should choose “socks”, Martin. Socks are one of Seth Godin’s favorite social objects:
    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2004/10/the_edge_beyond.html

  5. This is a post that should make those in marketing sit up and talk about the changes in how they do their jobs (alas, that makes this post a “social object”).
    No matter what you sell, if potential customers have not heard good things about you from their peers, then they wont buy. You cannot afford to be “the best kept secret” in your industry. This is especially important to remember if your product is of the “professional services” type: law firms, accounting, consulting, financial services, etc…. Too often these firms avoid wanting the spotlight of having people talking about them (because they cannot control what is said),
    But all marketing involves risk. If you live my the matrix you will die by the matrix.

  6. Interesting idea Hugh but I can’t see how this will apply where there are multiple influencers involved. Take cars where you may have many points of reference before making a decision. In software, you could have as many as 20 people involved with 1,000 reference points.
    So my question – how do address the issue of complex sales ie anything much beyond an impulse buy or commodity? Or don’t you?

  7. Great stuff again.
    Re; Martin’s comment. Don’t think you can be half-pregnant…
    The point about this idea is that it’s how stuff works (not “does” or “will” work but just plain “works”). And always has done.
    The changes in the media landscape are largely irrelevant to the mechanics of human behaviour, it seems to me – although the current landscape is revealing stuff we have missed. The truth is the long (and til now quite useful) explanation of how marketing works via images in the mind and so on is not the kind of theory of behaviour which stacks up very well within any emprical science outside marketing nowadays.

  8. Great series of posts, Hugh.
    I’d say Social Object is socially constructed fiction between:
    -an individual and himself (“The Secret”; Yoga; relationship with God; individual sports like long distance running, weight training; etc.); some of these can also be talked and performed in society, some not;
    -two people (courtship; marriage; having a baby; buying a house; starting a business with someone; asking someone for a light or a cigarette and the ritual behavior involved; etc.)
    -a group of people (collective sports; church going; reading clubs; working at a company; a rock concert; etc)
    -the broadcast model used by marketing (branding, commercials, advertising, direct marketing), where by companies, organizations and charities attempt to create catchy object metaphors in consumers mind that will spur sales.
    This latter model is also used by politicans and governments to construct a shared social fiction for action (which sometimes leads to negative and divisive social objects like wars).
    As Marting says above, we create images in our minds either individually or collectively that sets a context for sociality and action. The sociality can lead to actions that have real consequences, intended or not: increased sales; marriage; writing a book together, and so on.
    I look forward to more posts from you on this!
    And happy new year :) … (get some rest!)

  9. I agree with Martin.
    There are unconscious functions taking place in our head, which guide us to products. The way we associate the color red with communism, we associate products with lifestyles.
    Which men’s deodorant is the definite women attractor? If you know the answer, advertising worked, without any ‘word-of-mouth’.
    Of course I don’t disregard social objects, I trust the collective intelligence and I believe that ‘word-of-mouth’ can transform the development of a product; make it ‘tip’

  10. The socks thing is, indeed, funny. I talk about my socks all the time. Thorlos. Walking socks. I love ‘em. People sometimes look at me incredulously when I tell them how great they are, but, I don’t really care, because they’re great socks. I’ve never talked about any socks I ever owned before these and doubt that I’d ever talk about any other item of apparel quite this passionately, but, I do love my socks. But, honestly, I don’t love them as much as I love The Wire. Now, that’s something, I can really go on about!

  11. And that is why you need a “story”. Because stories are more interesting to talk about and relate than company mission statements. And so we are back to Ogilvy and Trout territory … craft, not commodity.

  12. Great series of posts, Hugh.
    I’d say Social Object is socially constructed fiction between:
    -an individual and himself (“The Secret”; Yoga; relationship with God; individual sports like long distance running, weight training; etc.); some of these can also be talked and performed in society, some not;
    -two people (courtship; marriage; having a baby; buying a house; starting a business with someone; asking someone for a light or a cigarette and the ritual behavior involved; etc.)
    -a group of people (collective sports; church going; reading clubs; working at a company; a rock concert; etc)
    -the broadcast model used by marketing (branding, commercials, advertising, direct marketing), where by companies, organizations and charities attempt to create catchy object metaphors in consumers mind that will spur sales.
    This latter model is also used by politicans and governments to construct a shared social fiction for action (which sometimes leads to negative and divisive social objects like wars).
    As Marting says above, we create images in our minds either individually or collectively that sets a context for sociality and action. The sociality can lead to actions that have real consequences, intended or not: increased sales; marriage; writing a book together, and so on.
    I look forward to more posts from you on this!
    And happy new year :) … (get some rest!)

  13. Hugh, thanks for this. It explains the Social Object concept clearly.

  14. In the confusing world of online vs. physical audio distribution, Thom Yorke from Radiohead seems to identify the physical cd as a social object:
    “And it’s really important to have an artefact as well, as they call it, an object.”
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7167759.stm
    But what was the (virtual) social object that helped gain Radiohead millions of delighted downloaders?
    The “act” of downloading the album itself?

  15. Hugh – great post. I have thought about some similar things, in particular I have wondered why and how the mass media developed in the way that it did with the power that it had (past tense) to influence. I think there is a lot there that is related to the cultural development of the 50′s along with the technological development/widespread adoption of broadcast TV, where a powerful few controlled the messages and society was seduced into swallowing the message whole because they had never seen such wonderful technology. It is like those cliche movies where an average Joe goes back in time and is treated like a god because he has things like a walkman and other modern technologies.
    As you say – the internet brought about the destruction of the one-way conversation and enlightened its users. I wonder what types of behaviors we are exhibiting today that we think are normal that will appear just as strange to our children as our parents sitting ’round the TV taking in the propaganda of the evening.

  16. Rachel Bellow says:

    Your memory of the Nestle’s jingle also means that back in “the day” advertising created emotional resonance around products by commanding the space in which to achieve that. What allowed for that space, insisted on it, and accompanied its presence, was authority–real and perceived. Since 1968 we’ve witnessed massive disenchantment with/suspicion of authority of any kind, especially centralized and nominal. No longer do we trust the “they” to tell us much of anything. We tell each other how it is. I don’t know if any of you caught the brief TV series, Mad Men, about advertising guys circa 1962 that aired this fall. Not a great script, but simply riveting in its accurate depiction of an era where there was one “they” (even the phrase Madison Avenue denotes that centralized status) and America believed what “they” told us. Buy this, look like this, behave like this, believe this…It showed the very moment when that fabric was just beginning to unravel. Just the first threads. Now, of course, it’s just a pile of string and anyone can pick up any strand. And yet I still believe we have a yearning for wisdom and experience and insight—something that helps us establish for ourselves an understanding of good-better-best. It’s not yet clear how this healthy flattening (and fracturing) of the authority hierarchy will serve to satisfy our innate need for wisdom transmission. Sometimes I can’t bear to wade into the morass of scattered, undifferentiated opinion…and I just want….not someone to tell me what to do, that’s not what I want…I want some wisdom please. It’s why I come to gapingvoid.

  17. Hugh – great post. I have thought about some similar things, in particular I have wondered why and how the mass media developed in the way that it did with the power that it had (past tense) to influence. I think there is a lot there that is related to the cultural development of the 50′s along with the technological development/widespread adoption of broadcast TV, where a powerful few controlled the messages and society was seduced into swallowing the message whole because they had never seen such wonderful technology. It is like those cliche movies where an average Joe goes back in time and is treated like a god because he has things like a walkman and other modern technologies.
    As you say – the internet brought about the destruction of the one-way conversation and enlightened its users. I wonder what types of behaviors we are exhibiting today that we think are normal that will appear just as strange to our children as our parents sitting ’round the TV taking in the propaganda of the evening.

  18. Thank you for thinking this through. It’s your posts like this that help me work out how to market my little business. What I’m taking away from this is that marketing is trying to actually sell the object, it should be trying to sell it as a social object. The way people crave iPhones – it’s the coolness factor. We have to find our own coolness, and find a way to make people want to talk about it.
    And as a woman, in response to Martin’s question, I’ve found underwear to be a huge social object. And even toothpaste a time or two. :)

  19. Rachel Bellow says:

    Tom Guarriello, I just bought 3 pairs of Thorlo socks (2 hiking, one running) from their site. Sure hope you’re not a plant from Thorlo, Inc. who’s notified whenever a mention of socks appears in a blog conversation, trigger you to begin your comment with, “Funny you should mention socks….” Now THAT would be smart marketing. But then I’d have to hunt you down and asphyxiate you with socks.

  20. I’ve always been amused by the overwrought claims of advertising. It is, after all, the second most lucrative “faith-based” industry there is. Advertising has always had it’s share of the snake-oil salesman, because nobody knows exactly how – or if – it works. Clearly it has some noticeable effect, but there is nothing surefire out of it. The Coca-Colas of the world pour millions of dollars into advertising knowing it works, but not knowing why and how well. And their various adverting agencies happily bill them, not knowing themselves what exactly just happened.
    The Social-Object theory seems as close to tangibility as any theory of advertising can get. It’s not without its vagaries but it puts a focus where no focus existed before.
    We live in an age where our choices threaten to overwhelm our very sanity. I agree with Hugh that teh internets – which has existed for decades – really got into gear in the last ten years when the overabundance of information – bad and good – was becoming a burden.
    Now we have a burden of another kind. Like Bart’s lizard that happily annihilates the pigeon population and infests Springfield, Have we replaced one system of information overload with another? And what is the internet equivalent of Chinese snakes to take care of this problem?

  21. Hello? I think it’s quite obvious that you want to sing! Everyone is talking about marketing and not saying a darn thing about that cartoon. So sing, already!
    (Actually I think you have been singing. And that is the ‘object’ … is object a noun or a verb, Hugh?)

  22. Sometimes, rarely, an ad can become a Social object itself to start the conversation. The Gold Blend series, the Hamlet cigars, Carlsberg lager, all have created something to talk about in the past. Last year, Cadbury’s Gorilla would be probably the best example.
    But these are rare and you can’t rely on it happening. Create the great product and the story around it and you have a better chance.

  23. hugh macleod says:

    Dennis Howlett, Jesus, what’s with all this “Dumb Question Trying Very Hard To Be A Smart Question” shit you’re always throwing my way?
    Get a grip, Boyo ;-)

  24. @Hugh: something to do with living in a world where complexity is a reality aka asking questions that have resonance in markets that represent $340billion in spend – aka financial services tech?
    Who needs to get a grip now?

  25. That would still be you, Dennis. {;)

  26. Social Object = Personal Computer
    I remember quite vividly the purchase of my first PC, and I will not share when that happened only that it was a while ago.
    The buzz, the word of mouth evangelizing this object created in our world was like nothing we had ever experienced. We all sat around obsessing over this wonderful new toy for hours that turned into days, months and now years.
    And at the time the PC was so much a “one way” exercise. We had not even connected local area networks, let alone the internet. You had to copy things on 5″ floppy disks…walk over and “share” in person.
    For me as an old school geek and parent of new school geeks…the greatest gift has been technology. Technology granted me and mine the opportunity to build greater communities…the greatest “social object” of all time. It gives us the absolute satisfaction of a kinetic connection with a machine while reaching out to one another.
    For me this has never been viewed as spin, marketing, or advertising. This has always been experiential. Is the social object the experience…the exercise in connecting?
    Thanks Hugh…great stuff.

  27. Great post, reminds me of a book I’m currently halfway through called Anatomy of Buzz. This post is a good supplement to the ideas I’m currently digesting in that book.

  28. I’m just guessing, but this sounds like a terrific book idea ;). You go dude and Happy New Year! We have piles of snow in upstate NY.

  29. That card makes me think of karaoke . . .

  30. So Hugh, what “responsibilty” do the creators of social objects such as news articles have to clarify the currency of their object? The most popular link on Time.com right now is an article from 1970 about a U.S. couple initially not allowed to adopt because they were atheists. It got my knickers in a twist, I tell ya, until a peep pointed out it was not *new* news.

  31. @scottr: and what is it exactly that you do? Oh checked it. Moving swiftly on.

  32. Hi Hugh
    Did you hear about TvLowCost ?
    http://www.tvlowcost.co.uk/
    I think It’s revolutionary in the old world of conventional advertising agencies.
    Cheers

  33. “or did the internet evolve as fast as it did in order to circumvent the Hyper-Clutter? I’m guessing the latter.”
    I’m with you there. In lotsa ways too not just in regards to ‘Hyper-Clutter’
    I believe that people create what (culture) they crave.
    Peace, Dave.

  34. Social Object = Purple Cow.

Trackbacks

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  3. [...] is artist Hugh McLeod talking about why the "social object" is the future of marketing: http://gapingvoid.com/2008/01/02…Basically, by applying something that causes us to talk to an otherwise inanimate object, you create [...]

  4. [...] and what they are perplexing to constraint for user benefit. But maybe one of a many laconic is Hugh McLeod’s idea of amicable objects. If you’re cheering about a advantages of Maxwell House coffee (yawn), you’ll eventually get by [...]

  5. [...] time and what they are trying to capture for user benefit. But perhaps one of the most succinct is Hugh McLeod’s notion of social objects. If you’re shouting about the benefits of Maxwell House coffee (yawn), you’ll eventually get [...]

  6. [...] And the Social Object is “the node” in these social networks. The Social Object is the reason why two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. [...]

  7. [...] profoundly impacted the way I thought about viral loops, engagement loops, social objects, retention — the whole works, in the early days of my first startup, [...]

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