blue monster: why social objects are the future of marketing


As a marketing blogger, I get asked a lot, “What is the future of marketing?”
I always answer the same: “The Blue Monster”.
What’s The Blue Monster?
A Blue Monster is a Social Object that articulates a Purpose-Idea.
What’s a Social Object? What’s a Purpose-Idea?
Sit yourself down, pour yourself another glass of whisky. This might take a while to explain…

In the late 1990’s I was living in New York, working as a mid-level copywriter at a mid-size advertising agency, when for whatever reason I started drawing cartoons exclusively on the back of business cards, just to give me something to do while sitting at the bar. Like I wrote on my blog:

All I had when I first got to Manhattan were 2 suitcases, a couple of cardboard boxes full of stuff, a reservation at the YMCA, and a 10-day freelance copywriting gig at a Midtown advertising agency.
My life for the next couple of weeks was going to work, walking around the city, and staggering back to the YMCA once the bars closed. Lots of alcohol and coffee shops. Lot of weird people. Being hit five times a day by this strange desire to laugh, sing and cry simultaneously. At times like these, there’s a lot to be said for an art form that fits easily inside your coat pocket.
The freelance gig turned into a permanent job. I stayed. The first month in New York for a newcomer has this certain amazing magic about it that is indescribable. Incandescent lucidity. However long you stay in New York, you pretty much spend the rest of your time there trying to recapture that feeling. Chasing Manhattan Dragon. I suppose the whole point of the cards initially was to somehow get that buzz onto paper.

I started my blog, in 2001. I was back living in the United Kingdom, where I grew up and where my mother and sister still lived.
By this time I had accumulated a couple of thousand business-card cartoons, and just started posting them on a semi-daily basis.
Fast Forward to 2006. By this time my blog is pretty well known- one of the largest in Europe-getting over a million unique visitors a month. My cartoons are all over the internet, it seems, especially around the tech blogger scene.
It’s around this time that I meet Steve Clayton, at one of the many “Geek Dinners” that have begun sprouting around the London tech scene.
Steve works for Microsoft, at the time he was running the UK Partner Group [I could tell you what that actually means, but that would take too long. Suffice to say, he’s one very clever and talented chappie].
Steve’s not the first “Microsoftie” I’d met before, but he was the first one I got on really well with. Over the next few months, we start seeing each other around a lot. He’s a really super nice guy, highly intelligent, and fun to hang out with. Good times all round.
Early on, he tells me something that really struck with me: “I could be making a lot more money, and taking a lot less social grief if I worked somewhere else. But I choose not to, simply because at Microsoft, you get to work on some REALLY cool stuff, sooner than anywhere else.”
Why was that so interesting to me? Because I had heard that very same reason cited to me by EVERY single Microsoft employee I had ever met up until that time. Secondly, like every other Microsoft employee I had ever met before, Steve was a really nice, open, fun guy. He did not typify the stereotype “Evil Borg Hive Member” that Microsoftees were often accused of being.
I pondered this for a while. Why did these folk work at Microsoft? It wasn’t the money, it wasn’t the social kudos. Something else was motivating them
So in October, 2006 I posted a cartoon on my blog that tried to express this drive, at least to myself. It went on to be called “The Blue Monster”:
[“The Blue Monster”. First blogged in October, 2006.]
I posted it in high-resolution, the idea being that people at Microsoft who liked the idea, could download it and print it out poster-style, if they wanted. Like I said on my blog:

I just designed this poster for my buddies over at Microsoft [you know who you are]. Feel free to download the high-res version by clicking on the image, and print it out onto – posters, t-shirts etc.
The headline works on a lot of different levels:

Microsoft telling its potential customers to change the world or go home.
Microsoft telling its employees to change the world or go home.
Microsoft employees telling their colleagues to change the world or go home.
Everybody else telling Microsoft to change the world or go home.
Everyone else telling their colleagues to change the world or go home.
And so forth.

Microsoft has seventy thousand-odd employees, a huge percentage them very determined to change the world, and often succeeding. And millions of customers with the same idea.
Basically, Microsoft is in the world-changing business. If they ever lose that, they might as well all go home.
I chose the monster image simply because I always thought there is something wonderfully demonic about wanting to change the world. It can be a force for the good, of course, if used wisely. It’s certainly a very loaded part of the human condition, but I suppose that’s what makes it compelling.

What happened next was quite extraordinary. Steve saw the cartoon, and really liked it. He immediately started using the image in his e-mail signature. He stared talking about the cartoon on his blog. Next thing you know, other folk inside Microsoft start doing the same. The “idea-virus” is unleashed.
Today, if you’re ever invited onto the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, if you walk around the offices, chances are you’ll see the Blue Monster poster, hanging on somebody’s wall. Or you might very well see someone with a Blue Monster sticker on their laptop, wearing a Blue Monster t-shirt, or handing you their business card with the Blue Monster on the back. Though the Blue Monster wasn’t created by Microsoft, for many people working there, it seems to articulate why they work there. It’s also been written about in the UK National Media, as well as countless tech blogs.
It’s not that everybody inside Microsoft “gets” The Blue Monster. It’s never been officially endorsed by them. But the ones who do get ito, REALLY get it. For them, it’s a cult object. It represents the conversation they INDIVIDUALLY wish to be having with the world about their company and technology in general, not what the corporate “Brand Police” upstairs want to be having with the world. They may be loyal employees of Microsoft, but they’re also individuals. Somehow The Blue Monster allows them to express both roles at the same time, allows them to navigate the blurry lines that separate the two.
I was just playing around with a cartoon idea at the time, not really expecting too much to come from it. I never expected the idea to get as big and well-known as it did. Life is full of surprises.
As the months went by and I started to see The Blue Monster story growing and growing, I had another insight: The Blue Monster wasn’t a one-off. The Blue Monster represented a fundamental shift in how marketing will be conducted in the future.
[One of the drawings I did for Seth Godin’s latest book, “The Dip”.]
[UPDATE:] In order to help me order my thoughts, I decided to put all my favorite social object posts onto a single blog page below. Enjoy.]
[From “KULA”: June 15th, 2007]
The Guardian’s Kevin Anderson [who also attended last night’s screening] has a nice synopsis of Jaiku Founder, Jyri Engstrom’s “Social Objects” idea.

Something about sites like Flickr that you will be using these sites for years to come.

The sites that work are built around social objects.

[…] MySpace. What is the real focal object? Music. Once they lose that focus, it is in trouble.
How does one build a useful service around social objects? Five key principles.
1. You should be able to define the social object your service is built around.
2. Define your verbs that your users perform on the objects. For instance, eBay has buy and sell buttons. It’s clear what the site is for.
3. How can people share the objects?
4. Turn invitations into gifts.
5. Charge the publishers, not the spectators. He learned this from Joi Ito. There will be a day when people don’t pay to download or consume music but the opportunity to publish their playlists online.

Besides being a web 2.0 entrepreneur, Jyri is an anthropologist. So at the London Jaiku geek dinner last Tuesday, I asked him about the connection between Social Objects and its correlation with Malinowski’s “Kula” [Malinowski was the father of modern Anthropology, by the way]. Jyri repsonded that this was very much the case. So much so, in fact, that one of his great friends and mentors, the aforementioned Joi Ito bought an island in Second Life and named it “Kula”.
Kula. Social Ojects. Objects of Sociability. Call it what you will, I think so much of what we’re trying to understand about the web, the future, and yes, MARKETING, stems from this very profound insight from Malinowski in the early 20th Century, that good folk like Jyri and Joi are now helping to shed new light on.
[Bonus Link:] Video of Jyri’s talk on Social Objects at the geek dinner. One of the best talks I’ve heard for a while.
[Starbuck’s Coffee Cup: June, 2007]
Somewhere along the line I figured out the easiest products to market are objects with “Sociability” baked-in. Products that allow people to have “conversations” with other folk. Seth Godin calls this quality “remarkablilty”.
For example: A street beggar holding out an ordinary paper cup cup won’t start a conversation. A street beggar holding out a Starbucks cup will. I know this to be true, because it happened to me and a friend the other day, as we were walking down the street and a guy asked us for some spare change. Afterwards, as we were commenting about the rather sad paradox of a homeless guy plying his trade with a “luxury” coffee cup, my friend said, “Starbucks should be paying that guy.”
Actually, my friend is wrong. Starbuck’s doesn’t need to be paying the homeless guy. Because Starbucks created a social object out of a paper cup, the homeless guy does their marketing for free, whether he knows it or not.
Although I suspect he does. I suspect somewhere along the line the poor chap figured out that holding out a Starbucks cup gets him more attention [and spare change] than an ordinary cup. And suddenly we’re seeing social reciprocity between a homeless person and a large corporation, without money ever changing hands. Whatever your views are on the plight of homeless people, this is “Indirect Marketing” at its finest.
[October, 2007:]Anyone who has heard me speak publicly lately will know that I’m currently very focused on the “Social Object” idea, which I was turned onto by Jaiku’s Jyri Engestrom. Here’s some more thoughts on the subject, in no particular order.
1. The term, “Social Object” can be a bit heady for some people. So often I’ll use the term, “Sharing Device” instead.
2. Social Networks are built around Social Objects, not vice versa. The latter act as “nodes”. The nodes appear before the network does.
3. Granted, the network is more powerful than the node. But the network needs the node, like flowers need sunlight.
4. My overall marketing thesis invariably asks the question, “If your product is not a Social Object, why are you in business?”
5. Yesterday at the Darden talk I explained why geeks have become so important to marketing. My definition of a geek is, “Somebody who socializes via objects.” When you think about it, we’re all geeks. Because we’re all enthusiastic about something outside ourselves. For me, it’s marketing and cartooning. for others, it could be cellphones or Scotch Whisky or Apple computers or NASCAR or the Boston Red Sox or Buddhism. All these act as Social Objects within a social network of people who care passionately about the stuff. Whatever industry you are in, there’s somebody who is geeked out about your product category. They are using your product [or a competitor’s product] as a Social Object. If you don’t understand how the geeks are socializing- connecting to other people- via your product, then you don’t actually have a marketing plan. Heck, you probably don’t have a viable business plan.
6. The Apple iPhone is the best example of Social Object I can think of. At least, it is when I’m trying to explain it to somebody unfamiliar with the concept.
7. The Social Object idea is not rocket science.
8. How do you turn a product into a Social Object? Answer: Social Gestures. And lots of them.
9. Products, and the ideas that spawn them, go viral when people can share them like gifts. Example: gmail invites in the early days.
10. Social Object can be abstract, digital, molecular etc.
11. The interesting thing about the Social Object is the not the object itself, but the conversations that happen around them. The Blue Monster is a good example of this. It’s not the cartoon that’s interesting, it’s the conversatuons that happen around it that’s interesting.
12. Ditto with a bottle of wine.
13. Once I get talking about marketing, it’s hard for me to go more than 3 minutes without saying the words, “Social Object”.
14. The most important word on the internet is not “Search”. The most important word on the internet is “Share”. Sharing is the driver. Sharing is the DNA. We use Social Objects to share ourselves with other people. We’re primates. we like to groom each other. It’s in our nature.
15. I believe Social Objects are the future of marketing.

Chris Schroeder riffs on my whole “Social Object” marketing schtick with this very salient thought:

If your company wants to succeed, it needs to have a social object marketing plan.

Amen to that. But note what Chris also says:

I don’t know about you, but when somebody walks by with an iPhone, I notice. If I see a kid stroll by me in some limited edition Nikes, that registers with me too.

Therein lies the rub. The Social Object idea is easy to get if your product is highly remarkable, highly sociable. An iPhone or the latest pair of Nike’s are both fine examples of this.
But I can already hear your inner MBA saying, “Yeah, but what if you don’t work for Nike or Apple? What if your product is boring home loans, auto insurance or… [the list of boring products is pretty long].
My standard answer to that is, “Social Gestures beget Social Objects.”
Which is another way of saying, maybe the way you relate to somebody as a human being plays a part in all this. Maybe describing the product as “boring” is just one more bullshit lie we tell ourselves in order to make the world seem less complicated and scary. Hey, my product is inherently dull and boring, therefore I get to be inherently dull and boring, too. Hooray!
Nowadays, thanks to folk like Nike, we think of sneakers as “non-boring” brands. This wasn’t true when I was a kid. Back then sneakers were those bloody awful $3 plimsolls we wore in Phys Ed. But it took companies like Nike and Adidas to come along and by shear force of will, raise the level of conversation in the sneaker department, before sneakers became bona fide global social objects, bona fide global powerhouse brands.
The decision to raise the level of conversation isn’t economic. Nor is it an intellectual decision. It’s a moral decision. But whether you have the stomach for it is up to you.
Like I told Thomas almost 3 years ago re. English bespoke tailoring, “Own the conversation by improving the conversation.” And hey, it worked. His sales went up 300% in 6 months.
It wasn’t the change in product that made Thomas’ suits Social Objects. It was changing the way he talked to people. The same applies to Stormhoek, which 3 years ago was an $8 bottle of South African wine nobody had ever heard of. Conversation. Matters.
So all you corporate MBAs out there, here’s a little tip. When you planning on how to embrace the brave new world of Web 2.0, the first question you ask yourself should not be “What tools do I use?”
Blogs, RSS, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook- it doesn’t matter.
The first question you should REALLY ask yourself is:
“How do I want to change the way I talk to people?”
And hopefully the rest should follow.
Think about it.
[Bonus Link: For a more academic take on social objects, check out this post from Anthropologist, Jyri Engestrom.]

[From “So What’s All This New Marketing Stuff, Anyway?”: December, 2007] Some people call it “The New Marketing”. Some people call it “Marketing 2.0”. Whatever name you care to give it, I get asked about it a lot. Here are some random thoughts, in no particular order.
1. “The New Marketing” came about because of two unstoppable forces: [A] The invention of the internet and [B] the beginning of the demise of what Seth Godin calls the “TV-Industrial Complex”. Thanks to the internet, as Clay Shirky famously stated in 2004, “the cost and difficulty of publishing absolutely anything, by anyone, into a global medium, just got a whole lot lower. And the effects of that increased pool of potential producers is going to be vast.” While this was going on, large companies found out that people were starting to ignore their ads. We have too many choices, too many good choices, and we’ve gotten too good at ignoring messages.
2. Seth Godin is quite rightly the world’s most respected writer on marketing. That being said, a lot of people haven’t heard of Mark Earls yet. They’re both friends of mine, so I don’t want to compare them too much. Seth is a master of taking complicated ideas and presenting them in a way that any Average Joe can understand. Mark is more of a Marketing Geek’s geek. His stuff makes uncomfortable reading for anyone in marketing who hasn’t been stretching himself lately.
3. The most important asset in The New Marketing is “having something worth talking about”. This makes certain marketing people squeamish. A lot of us grew up in an era of flashy commercials for rather uninspiring products, and something in our DNA makes us believe that’s the proper way to go about things.
4. If I had one big insight from the last year, is how The New Marketing has everything to do with how your product or service acts as a “Social Object”. Kudos to Jyri Engestrom for turning me on to it.
5. My second big insight from this year was learning that, even with a fairly everyday product, you can create social objects simply by using your products to make social gestures. That’s what we did with Stormhoek. The message wasn’t, “Here’s why you should buy our wine”. The message was, “We think you’re kinda cool, and we like what you’re doing. We’d like to be part of it, somehow.” And much to everyone’s surprise, it worked rather well.
6. Blogs were the big story for 2005. YouTube for 2006. Facebook for 2007. What’s the big story for 2008? I have no idea. Nor do I think it matters. For the big story, really, is always going to be the same. Websites comes and go, but “Cheap, Easy, Global, Hyperlinked Media” will be with us forever, save for Nuclear Holocaust.
7. A lot of what fuels The New Marketing is quite simply, the most important word in the English Language: “Love”. It’s hard to get someone to read your website if you’re not passionate about your subject matter.
8. I’m trying to train myself to avoid “Microsmosis” i.e. mistaking of a microcosm for the entire cosmos. If you got all your news from blogs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are just two phone companies- Apple and Nokia. But Sony, Motorola, LG and Samsung sell a lot of phones, too. Just not to our friends.
9. My Definition of “Web 3.0”: Learning how to use the web properly without it taking over your life. I’m not holding my breath.
10. Why is it so hard to explain The New Marketing to large companies? Because the people who work there are simply not prepared to relinquish the idea of control. Live by metrics, die by metrics etc.
11. I find all this more interesting when I don’t take it too seriously. Like all things internet, it’s far too easy to get carried away.
“Social Objects For Beginners”: December, 2007] As y’all will know, I’m fond of talking about “Social Objects” and how they pertain to “Marketing 2.0”. Even so, some people still get confused by what a Social Object actually is. So I wrote the following to clarify some more:
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.
Example A. You and your friend, Joe like to go bowling every Tuesday. The bowling is the Social Object.
Example B. You and your friend, Lee are huge Star Wars fans. Even though you never plan to do so, you two tend to geek out about Darth Vader and X-Wing fighters every time you meet. Star Wars is the Social Object.
Example C. You’ve popped into your local bar for a drink after work. At the bar there’s some random dude, sending a text on this neat-looking cellphone you’ve never seen before. So you go up to him and ask him about the phone. The random dude just LOVES his new phone, so has no trouble with telling a stranger about his new phone for hours on end. Next thing you know, you two are hitting it off and you offer to buy him a beer. You spend the rest of the next hour geeking out about the new phone, till it’s time for you to leave and go dine with your wife. The cellphone was the social object.
Example D. You’re a horny young guy at a party, in search of a mate. You see a hot young woman across the room. You go up and introduce yourself. You do not start the conversation by saying, “Here’s a list of all the girls I’ve gone to bed with, and some recent bank statements showing you how much money I make. Would you like to go to bed with me?” No, something more subtle happens. Basically, like all single men with an agenda, you ramble on like a yutz for ten minutes, making small talk. Until she mentions the name of her favorite author, Saul Bellow. Halleluiah! As it turns out, Saul Bellow happens to be YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR as well [No, seriously. He really is. You’re not making it up just to look good.]. Next thing you know, you two are totally enveloped in this deep and meaningful conversation about Saul Bellow. “Seize The Day”, “Herzog”, “Him With His Foot In His Mouth” and “Humbolt’s Gift”, eat your heart out. And as you two share a late-night cab back to her place, you’re thinking about how Saul Bellow is the Social Object here.
Example E. You’re an attractive young woman, married to a very successful Hedge Fund Manager in New York’s Upper East Side. Because your husband does so well, you don’t actually have to hold down a job for a living. But you still earned a Cum Laude from Dartmouth, so you need to keep your brain occupied. So you and your other Hedge Fund Wife friends get together and organise this very swish Charity Ball at the Ritz Carleton. You’ve guessed it; the Charity Ball is the Social Object.
Example F. After a year of personal trauma, you decide that yes, indeed, Jesus Christ is your Personal Saviour. You’ve already joined a Bible reading class and started attending church every Sunday. Next thing you know, you’ve made a lot of new friends in your new congregation. Suddenly you are awash with a whole new pile of Social Objects. Jesus, Church, The Bible, the Church Picnics, the choir rehearsals, the Christmas fund drive, the cookies and coffee after the 11 o’clock service, yes, all of them are Social Objects for you and new friends to share.
Example G. You’ve been married for less than a year, and already your first child is born. In the last year, you and your spouse have acquired three beautiful new Social Objects: The marriage, the firstborn, and your own new family. It’s what life’s all about.
There. I’ve given you seven examples. But I could give THOUSANDS more. But there’s no need to. The thing to remember is, Human beings do not socialize in a completely random way. There’s a tangible reason for us being together, that ties us together. Again, that reason is called the Social Object. Social Networks form around Social Objects, not the other way around.
Another thing to remember is the world of Social Objects can have many layers. As with any complex creature, there can be more than one reason for us to be together. So anybody currently dating a cute girl who’s into not just Saul Bellow, but also into bowling and cellphones and Star Wars and swish Charity Balls as well, will know what I mean.
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.
[Afterthought:] As I’m fond of saying, nothing about Social Objects is rocket science. Then again, there’s nothing about “Love” that is rocket science, either. That doesn’t mean it can’t mess with your head. Rock on.
[Link:] Mark Earls has some nice thoughts on this, as well. “Things change because of people interacting with other people, rather than technology or design really doing things to people.”
[N.B. “Social Objects” is a term I did not coin myself, but was turned onto by the anthropolgist and Jaiku founder, Jyri Engestrom.]
[From “Why The Social Object Is The Future Of Marketing”: January, 2008]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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
[From “The Social Marker- The Social Object on Steroids etc.” January, 2008] You all will be familiar with my writings on Social Objects by now.

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.

Increasingly I’ve been using a term, “Social Marker” to describe a certain type of Social Object. I’ve found it especially useful for explaining certain ideas to marketing folk.
When two people meet, the first thing they try to do is place each other in context. A social context. So they insert some hints into the conversation:

“I used to know your Uncle Bob.”
“I work at Saatchi & Saatchi’s.
“I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell for years.”
“I’m a member of Soho House.”
“I was reading Doc Searls’ blog the other day.”
“I was college roommates with your ex-girlfriend.”
“I was sampling some fine Islay single malts the other evening.”
“I bought some Versace shirts from Barney’s last week.”
“You’re a Red Sox fan too?”
“I think Andy Warhol is overrated.”
“I think Led Zeppelin is underrated.”
“I was having dinner with some guys from Goldman Sachs.”
“My wife thinks the Upper West Side is really good for schools.”
“San Tropez is too expensive in February.”

Let’s say, for sake of argument, that you never heard of me before, but I knew all about you. And let’s say, for example, you were also the world’s greatest Boston Red Sox fan. And let’s say I saw you in a coffee shop. And let’s say I went over to your table, like a stalker [You don’t know me from Adam, remember].
And let’s say the first thing out of mouth was a short list of five names:
“Carl Yastrzemski. Carlton Fisk. Rico Petrocelli. Fred Lynn. Dwight Evans.”
Yes, granted, that would be pretty strange behavior. That being said, because you knew every single factoid about the 1975 World Series there was to know, you would know exactly who and what I was talking about. Right away, you would know that we shared a context, even though I had only given you five names and nothing else. Which would make you more likely to invite me to sit down at your table and start a conversation.
Every ecosystem has its own, unique set of social markers- nouns that serve as social shorthand, stuff you use to let other people know ASAP that you know what you’re talking about, that you are a fellow “citizen” in a certain space.
When I visit San Francisco I am always surprised how often the name of my friend, Robert Scoble comes up in random conversation, unprompted by myself. Why is that? Why is he so well known? Is his blog REALLY that good? Is he REALLY that smart and interesting?
Well, I could give a whole stack of reasons to explain why I think Robert’s success is well-deserved. But one major reason that his blog’s traffic is so high, and his name so well-known, is that his personal brand has somehow managed to become a Social Marker inside the Silicon Valley ecosystem. The same could also be said for Mike Arrington, Loic Le Meur or Mark Zuckerberg. Dropping their names into random conversations allows people to quickly and efficiently contextualize themselves.
Something similar happened to me a couple of years ago. A artist friend of mine was hitting on a girl, another artist, in a bar in New York’s Lower East Side. For whatever reason, the subject of “Art and the Internet” came up. So my friend started telling the girl about this other friend of his, this guy living over in England, who drew these weird little cartoons on the back of business cards…
“That is SO unoriginal,” the girl interrupts, rolling her eyeballs. “Who does he think he is, Hugh MacLeod?”
Heh. Small world. Yes. She was using me as a Social Marker.
Social Markers are a prime form of social shorthand, that people use to STAKE OUT the ecosystem they’re occupying. So why do I find this such a useful term for marketers? Because obviously, if your product is a Social Marker in your industry ecosystem [the way the iPhone is in the mobile world, or Starbucks is in the coffee world, or Amazon is the book world, or Google is in the search world, or Whole Foods is in the supermarket world, or Virgin is in the airline world, or English Cut in the bespoke world etc etc] you will have an AMAZING competitive advantage to call your own.
And if the product your company makes is not a Social Marker, I guess the first question would be, “Why the hell not?” Quit your job and start over.
[Update:] Neal makes a really good point in the comments: Really interesting thought, Hugh, but bad products could also be a social marker – “ah, yes, I was ripped off by that building company too” or “oh – you’ll be disappointed by that mobile phone as well”. I’d suggest there’s also a variable here about positive v negative that you should think about before quitting that job :)
[Bonus Link] US News & World Report: “Selling in a Post-Meatball Era- The quest for ‘social objects’ that create their own Web buzz.” Seth Godin in a great interview to plug his new book, Meatball Sundae. “Social Object” given a small mention etc.
[From “Free Cartoons As Social Objects”: May, 2008] When I first started putting up cartoons onto gapingvoid in 2001, they were in a small, 400-pixel-wide format, just like the “Love Letter” cartoon you see above.
Then about 2 years ago, I started posting them in high-resolution, like the “Dinosaur” cartoon below [Click on the image and the high-res version will pop up].
This meant people could actually download the images and start using them for their own stuff. Like I said in my licensing terms,

Hey, if you want to put the work up on your website, blog, or stick it on paper, t-shirts, business cards, stickers, homemade greeting cards, Powerpoint slides, or whatever, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it’s just for your own personal use, as long as you’re not trying to make money off it directly, and you’re giving me due attribution, I’m totally cool with the idea.

As a “Social Object”, a cartoon that one can actually print out and hang on their cube wall, or put on a t-shirt, a business card etc is far more powerful and useful than say, YET ONE MORE IMAGE you can find on the internet and e-mail en masse to your friends.
i.e. The cartoon itself hasn’t changed, but the interaction between it and the “End User” is suddenly far more meaningful.
So of course, the next layman’s question is, “Yes, but… how do you monetize it?”
And of course, the answer is, “Indirectly”.
For example, in October, 2006 I post the Microsoft Blue Monster cartoon. Within a few months Microsoft is somehow paying me a lot of money to do other drawings for them. Without the former, the latter would never have happened. And without the latter, Sun Microsystems would never have approached me. Everything feeds into everything else. Exactly.
In other words, I don’t create the online cartoons as “products” to be sold. I create the cartoons as “Social Objects”, i.e. “Sharing Devices” that help me to build relationships with.
As with all things, the REAL value comes from the human relationships that are built AROUND the social object, not the object in itself.

I’ll quote my friend, Mark Earls one more time. This is from his second book, “Herd”:

“Cova is surely right to suggest that much of modern consumer behaviour is social in nature. We do it not just in a social context (tangible and immediately present or over distances) but for social reasons — that is the object or activity is the means for a group or tribe to form or interact. This also echoes a lot of what Douglas Atkin describes in his study of cult brands — brands which have developed a cult status (like Apple, and Ford’s bestselling pickup) seem to serve an underlying social need within each individual (just as religious cults do): a need to belong. The real draw is probably not the brand but… other people.”

And I’ll also ask my favorite question, one more time: If your product is not a “Social Object”, how on earth do you manage to stay in business?

(Cartoon taken from The Hughtrain etc.)
Like I said in my interview with Mark Earls, The Blue Monster is a “Purpose-Idea”. As Mark, the man who first coined the term explains it:

Put really simply, the Purpose-Idea is the “What For?” of a business, or any kind of community. What exists to change (or protect) in the world, why employees get out of bed in the morning, what difference the business seeks to make on behalf of customers and employees and everyone else? BTW this is not “mission, vision, values” territory – it’s about real drives, passions and beliefs. The stuff that men in suits tend to get embarrassed about because it’s personal. But it’s the stuff that makes the difference between success and failure, because this kind of stuff brings folk together in all aspects of human life.

Real drives, passions and beliefs. Exactly.
The Blue Monster line, “Change The World Or Go Home” is not rocket science or literary brilliance. It just articulates a simple belief, a simple passion, a simple drive THAT ALREADY EXISTED, long before The Blue Monster ever came on to the scene. That’s all it was ever meant to do.
[The Microsoft Blue Monster etc.]
Whether you agree or disagree with it doesn’t matter, the important bit is that people within Microsoft believe it. Unlike a conventional ad campaign, it’s not about you. It’s about them.
Why is something like this potentially valuable to a business? Simply put, if you believe something passionately enough, for long enough, articulate it well enough, and your actions are aligned, credible and consistent with your belief for long enough, it’s just a matter of time before other people start believing it, too. And next thing you know, you have an interesting conversation going on, both inside and outside the company. And as Doc Searls famously said, “Markets are conversations”. Ker-Chiing.
Again, none of this is rocket science. Talking to people never is.
When people ask me what exactly is a Blue Monster, I tell them, it’s not necessarily a cartoon. It’s simply a social object that allows one to more easily articulate the Purpose-Idea. No more, no less.
I’ve been asking myself for years, what comes after conventional, Madison-Avenue-style advertising, now that we live in a post-TV, post-advertising, post-message world? “Creating Blue Monsters” is the closest I’ve ever come to finding an actual answer.
Besides drawing the cartoons, helping other companies create Blue Monsters is how I intend to spend the remainder of my career.
Cartoons and Blue Monsters. I really do have the world’s greatest job. Rock on.
[To Be Continued….]


  1. OK, let me guess: Microsoft, unhappy with the reaction to its cloud initiative, looked for wide, recession-proof business where they could keep cooking stuff in a secret cave, where marketing wows were important and they age (decades now) woudn’t sound like an oxymoron with “high-tech innovation”. . .
    And landed on a Whisky-based business model (with flask-add-ons and ice-servers). Trusting your previous experience at a winery (that’s liquor-related) they named you chief marketer for Microsoft Beverages?
    Not even close? I tried.

  2. everyone thinks they are special…once everyone has a blue monster, or listens to Brittany Spears, or watches Oprah, they aren’t special anymore, marketing dies. Blue monster makes them feel in a special club but be careful, monsters get big.

  3. Ok. . .I don’t drink whiskey. . . But allow me to substitute with a glass of ginger ale and continue to read as you rock on. . .

  4. Aha. Lightbulb moment. So when I was creating artistamps, when I was having laughs with them & far before I designed them for clients etc, they were social markers that opened conversations about marketing and design and fun.
    And when Connie Reece & Cathleen Rittereiser started the Frozen Pea Fund, that bag of peas I’d stuck in my cleavage after my biopsy marathon became a social marker. And it seems perhaps my boobs are as well?
    This takes some getting my head around but your examples are killer right on, even at midnight. If only I had not read this my mind might not be cranking out ideas left and right. Thanks Hugh.

  5. Maybe you didn’t come up with the word Social Object, but in this post you are a curator. Thanks. Quick question: If Social Object is the Social Object here, what’s the Purpose Idea?

  6. great post hugh. you’re so right about the first month in nyc and then trying to replicate it…i’m off to beersphere to create some blue monsters. cheers

  7. I’m pretty sure that was the single best blog post I have ever read. No, wait … Yep. Congratulations, and THANKS for sharing.

  8. Ah—so nice to see the rest of it. Way to put your finger on all the stuff that’s floating around and name it.
    I’m going to pass this on to this guy I know, Scott Bedbury. He helped make that Starbucks cup what it is.
    Thanks Hugh, good job.

  9. I like you, you’re human. And you draw cartoons. and they are popular… and, where’s my glass!
    Would love to do the new york thing..
    (i wonder if i will ever)

  10. ok, from what I read from the post it was good. but why so bloody long? I’m going to have to print the thing out and read it over several days to get all of the points mentioned here. Granted, this is the first time I’ve ever seen your blog (or heard of it) so perhaps I just don’t get your style. But keeping things simple is a good art form as well, no?

  11. Wonderful … so Microsoft can maximize their profits from Vista.
    Now … what was it I was supposed to celebrate?

  12. Neat Article. Was wondering WTF for quite sometime in the beginning and then it all made complete sense towards the middle.
    Social Objects it is – yes sir!

  13. Enjoyed the reading. It comes at a very apropos time merely because I have been tasked with starting a national movement to change the lives of at-risk (admittedly overused and overbroad) kids. a lot to consider. Appreciate the perspectives.

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