Social Media: The Key is Behavior

Is it just me, or is everyone seeing a significant shift in interest around social media? The term’s been around for two or three years, and has been discussed at industry conferences earlier than that. Maybe we’ve reached the tipping point in social media as a marketing tool.

Clients no longer ask social media is. They now want to know how to use it. They also want to know if it’s OK to create a company presence in MySpace, or when it’s appropriate to use social advertising. My answer: it’s all about behavior.

I examined my expectations for my six-year old son’s acceptable behavior. Asking politely is acceptable. Butting in isn’t. Speaking calmly is acceptable. Shouting isn’t.

Acceptable behaviors are constructed around established social conduct norms. Social conduct is, of course, related to social media. Using social media effectively requires understanding what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in a social setting.

Consider your own household or workplace: there’s nothing wrong with shouting sometimes. At the right time, it could save your life. The same rules we teach kids allow adults to function smoothly when packed together on the train after work. In this context, proper use of social channels in marketing becomes pretty apparent. So why all the confusion? Perhaps because for many marketers, the concept of social behavior is new.

In a push/tell marketing context, it’s common to interrupt or use pressure tactics. We push into TV shows. We flash across screens. We ever-so-slightly pump the volume to wake sleeping nighttime listeners. Consider the classic auto showroom sales experience: somehow, it just seems to embody the practices we’d never tolerate in our own homes. In a flash of innovation, Saturn launched in 1985 with an entire sales operation based on not continuing these traditional practices. Instead, they focused on treating customers in a business environment that borrowed heavily from social norms borrowed from the hospitality industry. Saturn customers responded by buying cars. Lots of cars. Mercedes, Land Rover, BMW, Toyota, Honda, Kia, and others have carefully built very pleasant and effective retail hospitality programs. They’ve all gained market share.

What does this have to do with contemporary social media? Everything. Behaviors acceptable in traditional interruptive advertising: radio, TV, print, and most online media, aren’t acceptable in a social network. This doesn’t mean that a business can’t have a presence in a social network. Instead, it means that the business presence must serve and respect the social norms of the host community. Instead of interrupting—for example, by adding your business presence to someone’s MySpace profile or requesting that it be added as a friend in Facebook, create something of value for network members. In MySpace, throw a (real) party and invite people who’ll invite others. It’s still marketing, but if you ply me with liquor, well, I’m a whole lot more agreeable. In Facebook, create an application that does something for me. I’ll respond by telling my friends and asking them to add your application.

Social media doesn’t work like the billboard that says “Does advertising just work? Just Did!” It doesn’t butt in or trick you with a clever line. Social media works because social community members who are exposed to your message deem it worthy for continued conversation within that community. It’s a lot like the way ants carry food into the nest: the first requirement is the workers pick it up. If they aren’t biting, your message won’t be carried inside. Food is useful to ants. It nourishes them. What does you message do? To paraphrase JFK, “Ask not what your customer can do for you, but what you can do for your customer.” Make her smarter about cars. All cars, not just your car. If she concludes yours is the best, she’ll buy it. Even better, because you took the time to make her smarter about all cars she’ll tell everyone why yours is better than the others she considered. That added conversation is the real bonus offered through the use of social media.

In the end, a lot of what’s going on in social media comes down to the simple norms and codes of conduct we use every day. Treat me with respect, give me something cool to talk about, and I’ll do your marketing for you.

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