When brands think of digital or social as “media” they err when they approach consumers as they do with other types of media. This is the wrong point of departure. Digital is an integral component of how we experience life, not a ‘media’. And when brands connect with consumers in a way that creates resonance and demonstrates empathy, thereby forming lasting connections, the brand isn’t being social, it’s being human.
People relate by the exchange of story. Memories of past experience are threaded together by a narrative line that individuals create for themselves, proving R.W. Emerson’s idea that, “there is no history, only biography.” The relating comes not because stories are told, but because stories are told and heard.
One of the most powerful and disruptive effects brought by digital is the widespread disintermediation of established boundaries, defined journeys and to some degree, the ‘pecking orders’ of importance and status. On the social web, we all speak at the same volume regardless of who we are or where we’ve come from. This powerful opportunity to connect is too often lost. As Stephen Covey observed, “Most people listen with the intent to respond,” and too often this is how a brand interacts on the social web (likely because it is approaching the social web as a media channel). To realize the relational potential of human storytelling, brands must listen to understand. Understanding is a critical component of empathy and requires a layer of context to surface what matters to consumers, and more importantly, what they find meaningful. There isn’t an app for that, and long may it be that way.
One brand that is getting it right is XBOX. Marketers there are tapping into the power of human media by connecting emotionally and providing the ornaments of meaning essential to become part of the story consumers tell themselves. Because story is how we remember experience, story is how we share memories. By taking a deep dive into a consumer’s public profile, the brand offers a simple and unexpected gift that demonstrates interest in a 1:1 relationship that is timely and innately personal. Because they are intended to become part of the consumer’s story, XBOX’s engagements are widely amplified throughout the social layer.
In this example, resonance is not only created, but also reflected back to the brand in the form of a photo, which makes use of a print featuring the image posted by the brand. It’s one thing to “like” content, but when a customer likes, prints, photographs, and shares that photo back with the brand, it quickly becomes easy to see how powerful and meaningful the human-brand connection can be.
The generous latitude Groupon gave its social team in reacting to comments about their product, The Banana Bunker, drove wild levels of engagement and sales. As the 12,000 comments started to roll in, Groupon listened to understand and replied in a way that adds to the story, no doubt contributing to the 43,000 shares. Bill Roberts, the global head of communication for Groupon shared in an Adweek interview, “It’s very easy to confuse what a Banana Bunker is on first glance and it would be too obvious to validate that. Instead we wanted to take the innocent approach. Plus, our team is very passionate about the benefits of potassium.” Before the post went viral they had cleared out their inventory.
For brands to gain meaningful connections through story sharing on the social web three pillars must be present:
- Listen to the network (information): What do your customers (or potential customers) talk about? What tone of voice do they use with each other? What about competitors?
- Understand the network’s goals (analysis): Blogs, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn have different relational appeals. The way a brand engages on the social web must be congruent with the expectations in that network in order to be a member, not an invader, of the community. Can you infer the goals your competitors appear to have?
- Add the important layer of context (human insight): What value will the brand’s presence bring to the community? Will the stories the brand shares connect emotionally in a way that means something personal to the network? Will the brand be able to demonstrate it is listening to understand in an authentic and genuine manner?
In the material context, it’s hard to imagine sitting around a campfire and sharing stories with a brand. But in the immaterial digital contexts, this is exactly what a brand can do when it shares stories as a single human voice.
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