In the social era, a lot of things have changed: the way we interact with customers, the way we build relationships with them, the way we create and consume content. It isn’t a one-way street anymore.
There is no such thing as "owning your brand" anymore, either. The customers help shape and define your brand. They want to co-create it with you.
In her book 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #SocialEra, Nilofer Merchant talks about the new model for building customer relationships—the relationship arc. I found it highly relevant to any marketer and/or business owner because—for the first time—we have a new way to conceptualize the dynamic going on in the marketplace.
Now, for Merchant, as well as for me, social is inherently more than media or marketing work. Social is a mindset; it cuts across business strategies. Merchant explains:
Whenever I say "Social is more than media," people resist. It's as if the two words (social and media) are now permanently fused together. But they shouldn't be. The fact that they are joined at the hip in so many people's minds means that marketing agencies alone are thriving and making money—but we are collectively missing out. Our careers, our businesses, even our economy is stagnating because we’re not connecting this fundamental truth: Just because it’s on the Web and sharable, doesn’t make the work social. Because social is, well, social. Social means more than just your interests or just my interests are met. If it is social, then our shared interests are met.
The big thing she’s trying to get marketers to know is: Some brands say "we want to own our brand," while others say "our customers are in charge." But both of these approaches are false. "It’s like saying that in your marriage your partner is 100% in charge over you, or you over them," Merchant writes. "But the reality is more something in the middle. Like in marriage, both parties are agreeing to something in the middle to create an exchange. That’s why marketing in the social era means understanding this truth: until we care and we know one another—we're not listening to you."
True relationship-building approaches will need to replace the "ownership" type of mentality for brands.
This relationship construct is one Merchant explores in her best-selling book. And it's probably one big reason why Fast Company named it one of the Best Business Books of 2012. Below is an excerpt that elaborates on this idea:
Social has never been a technology trend, as it is often depicted by the experts. Humans have always wanted to connect, organize, and create value. Back when there were tribes, people had community and naturally had relationships in the marketplace. But for a very long time, organizations couldn’t achieve the needed scale, which was intricately tied to profits, and also have connection. So, relationships were abandoned for the sake of efficiency. But now, if we let it, marketing in the social era will look like any other relationship; perhaps like falling in love, following an arc of romance, struggle, commitment, and sometimes, co-creation:
Romance. This first phase is about introductions. In purchasing, as in dating, people don’t want to think about big commitments when they are still trying to decide if they even want to get to know you better; this phase of connection is about exploring.
Struggle. As we spend time together and get to know each other, there is a mutual effort to learn how both parties in the relationship are going to fit together. Each party has to realize it’s not all about them. After all, there needs to be balance if a relationship is going to last for the long term. In the business context, the parallel holds: both parties have to share in the outcome. For example, a local retailer in my area, recently directed me to buy a product online from another vendor because it would better complete my outfit, an experience that is seen by the consumer (me in this case) as generous. Consumers can contribute to the relationship by signaling their needs so that businesses can serve them, or by deciding to buy from companies whose values they support instead of shopping on price alone. For an organization, this can also be about making information available freely, knowing that it may not get picked as the vendor of choice, but the consumer will still get the best choice for her.
Commitment. When the relationship stabilizes, each knows what to expect from the other and cares enough to be there, for better or for worse. While loyalty in a predominantly one-way, transactional exchange is fragile, commitment in a stable, bidirectional relationship is far more robust. You are willing to forgive one another for mistakes. Or, to look past small annoyances because the benefit of being committed is worth the trade-offs. Just as we might hope a married couple would stay together through cancer or financial devastation, we hope that the parties in business can weather through the ups and downs that change brings. For example, when Toscanini’s ice cream (once deemed the "Best Ice Cream in the World" by the New York Times) messed up its taxes a few years back, its passionate community of ice cream lovers donated about $30,000 in one week in a spontaneous bailout.
Co-creation. Just as not all relationships produce children, not all business involves co-creation. But co-creation produces a different level of ownership of both the product and the brand. In this type of relationship, a customer is no longer merely making a transactional purchase, but participating in the act of creating. If for example, I design a T-shirt for Threadless or contribute code to an Open Source Initiative, or correct an entry on Wikipedia, I am creating with the organization. If I purchase that smoking hot Burberry jacket that only fifty customers were allowed to order in a custom color, then not only do I love the jacket, I have created something unique with the brand and therefore have ownership with the brand. Kepler’s, an independent bookstore near Stanford University, underwent a similar closure and recovery as Toscanini’s, but the story went further. Now that community donations have streamed in to save it, the bookstore and its board—composed of community members—are planning to rebuild as a next-generation community literary and cultural center.
As I have personally seen at Intel, marketing has to become relationship-oriented and truly social. This will be challenging perhaps because many organizations will want to plan budgets and coordinate activities as if it’s really clear that if we do X, the consumer will do Y. But relationships are hard to predict, especially now when the power has shifted from a company-centered worldview to a consumer-centric one. We live in a time when consumers can co-create with one another, as well as with brands. Smart brands recognize the shift in power and are partnering with their customers and both parties benefit from that mentality.
[Image: Flickr user Grant Hutchinson]