In the age of Apple , the importance of great products that surprise and delight has never been so top of mind. Meaningful products are the personification of a brand and the essence of a company.
Although most great products are still locked up in company "real estate," i.e. retail stores, content databases, and e-commerce stacks, the lucky ones have been set free to thrive and explore the web, thus creating marketing opportunities while also altering the traditional dynamics between companies and their customers.
Today, the evolution of the Internet and smart devices has created an amazing fabric of connected lives and now weaves together people's connections with things. Products are starting to "participate" in social media in new and meaningful ways; they're taking on personas and social statuses all their own; they are igniting conversations, eliciting emotion, engendering loyalty and evangelism, and even forming new ways for individuals to express themselves.
To generate this activity, a product persona must be inherently social. For brands, great products are the most authentic form of marketing content because they ARE the brand. They can be released, tracked, and with the right tools, managed across the entire social graph. As they've learned from early experimentation, retailers and brands understand they can't simply move their catalogs to Facebook and inundate fans with the same old direct marketing messaging. Social products need to live their own existence on the social graph.
The most innovative brands are creating product personas that embody characteristics of a strong social product. They are:
1) Simple. Online consumption patterns for social are short-format, activity-stream-oriented. Products that have multiple dimensions are harder to build a social experience around. Complexity from multiple options for color, size, version, pricing plans and so on can reduce impulsive sharing and purchase. The Pebble E-Paper Watch is an example of a simple social product, a great product set free to live and grow in the social world with 84,000 Likes on Facebook and $7.7 million in funding raised on Kickstarter  and growing...amazing.
2) Emotional. Products or product experiences that create emotion with customers have better odds of developing a social identity and building momentum. Social products must be memorable and present a great experience. Kaenon's G. Love & Special Sauce-inspired  sunglasses are a great example.
3) Beautiful. Sharing is self-expression and expression is more powerful with images than with words alone. The explosion of Pinterest  has proven that social consumers love to express themselves through rich product imagery.
4) Valuable. In the broadest sense of the word, valuable products mean something to their owners, whether it's a $30 Lego set that delights a 3-year-old or a $1,200 Sonos system that fills a home with music. Value does not necessarily mean discount . Products derive value when people trust the direct recommendations of people they know, whether explicit or implied through sharing. Value is a far larger driver of purchase decision than price.
5) Special. Products that resonate with social customers tell stories that are limited, different, new, or interesting. Nike, for example, has built a special experience around its Dunks shoes .
When a person recommends a product, it says as much about them as the clothes he wears or the car she drives. These interactions become a form of self-expression; brands need to understand their customers in this context and ask: What does it say about a person when he or she shares, wants, or owns a brand or product? What is the value of being the friend who discovers a great new product that delights? How can a customer provide value to their family, friends, and colleagues around a product? Is a customer depositing to, or drawing from, their social equity bank when they connect with a product?
In addition to the marketing outcomes, social interaction activities generate incredibly valuable insights. With so much referral, recommendation, and social proofing activity now happening online, retailers and brands have true visibility into person-to-person purchase influence as well as share reach and frequency. Imagine a world where a marketer not only can identify which customers are their most valuable commerce influencers, but also can identify which products have the most influence and virality. With the right tools, this is possible.
Stephen Colbert might be upset to hear that companies are not people on the social web, but great products can be. When set free, products with personas contribute value, express emotion, connect to people, influence purchase decisions, and drive ROI.
[Image: Flickr user Colin Wu ]