The single most significant change that has occurred to digital, interactive technology over the last decade has been the way that relationships between people have been built directly into the systems that we all use. As a culture, we have long understood that people seek to create connections almost instinctually. We do this as a way of protecting ourselves or of achieving great things. We cluster together to create a sense of identity and to simply provide comfort. We are social animals and even the most isolated members of our societies are still, fundamentally, a part of our societies.
It is no surprise, then, that we have built the ability to connect with one another into the Internet, our most prevalent technology. There is a theory of technological development that says technology follows our needs and only delivers innovations that we truly value.
This insight - that technology only gives us what we really want - is much of what lay at the foundation of online strategy over the last decade or so. Thanks, mostly, to Apple Computer and Steve Jobs, we have all been conditioned to flip the traditional model of business thinking. In the past, companies created things and then got to work convincing you that this thing was what you wanted. Plus, if you wanted to use this thing, you needed to figure it out. Sometimes, the more complex the thing was, the more attractive it seemed, because you needed special skills to use it. You were special, the ads would say. You are smart enough to want the thing and to use it.
But that all shifted some time back when we began to realize that what we actually valued was simply the benefit of the thing. What we wanted to do became the prime focus and the thing's ability to help us do it was what mattered. A phrase began to ricochet through the halls of marketing departments and product design teams: "consumer-centric."
Consumer-centric marketing began with an understanding of the needs and desires of a particular customer and positions the product against that. But that person in the center has always been a singular. We talk and think about a single person making a single decision that will ultimately (hopefully) generate some value for us.That idea is totally outdated. It is time for strategy to move from consumer-centric to consumers-centric. We have to think plural from now on.
How to Think Plural
Thinking plural means simply to recognize that every person that we are designing for exists within a network and uses that network to take actions. This means - possibly most amazingly - that we should think about designing experiences not only for people who are in our market and may make a purchase, but rather people who are potentially adjacent to our market and may take an action that brings someone else in to make a purchase.
The best example of this is FarmVille, not only because it demonstrates the principle, but it also shows how the idea can be taken too far. FarmVille is designed to be played both for free and for pay. Both paths are fun (if you're into that sort of thing). Yes, the for-pay version can be more enjoyable, but you can have a satisfying experience playing FarmVille for nothing. In fact, a huge number of people do.
The reason why this works for Zynga (the recently-public company behind FarmVille) is that FarmVille is an inherently social game: actions are constantly being fed into a player's social network, along with pleas for help on tasks. This means that all players - free and paid - are actively communicating the game to their networks and bringing people in. A simple equation can be cooked up: one player not paying can generate 10 new players that do pay. Rather than compelling that one original player to pay, Zynga can instead give him or her (very often her) a great experience and reap the downstream revenue. It is a great model.
But like all great models, it can be taken to an extreme. FarmVille quickly became everyone's favorite annoyance, as their newsfeeds became crammed with requests to build barns and harvest turnips. It started to seem that Zynga was no longer focused on designing for someone, but rather designing through that person. It saw every player as a broadcast station. Players were no longer the focus; the ability to produce new players was. It became the multi-level marketing scheme of social media.
We need to begin thinking of people as existing, still at the center of our designs, but accompanied by their friends and family and coworkers and colleagues. We need to think of ways that we can create individual experiences that are great and compelling in their own right but also rest on top of their networks.
This is no small challenge and I am (admittedly) not giving any clear answers. Instead, I am initiating the call. Or, I suppose, lending my voice in support of the cause. We need to find a way of thinking more plural with our consumers. That is clearly the next generation of the work that we are doing - creating experiences and messages that not only fit in with people's lives but also provide them with what they already know they need - a sense of community in everything they do.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.