Not a long time ago, we used to have social networks – newsfeeds that had posts from friends, (trending) topics that real people were actually interested in having a conversation about without a voucher/prize involved – #youremember? These soon reached a tipping point and a scale that got brands interested. The initial involvement was seemingly harmless and acknowledged that ‘social’ needed an approach different from traditional marketing. The only stated objectives were ‘engagement’, ‘community’ ‘conversation’ and its surrogates, and these were seen as necessities for the brand’s survival in the social era. While most agreed to this intuitively, the ‘how’ i.e. a connection to the business, had not been established yet, and was a subject of much debate. The enterprise, sensing an opportunity, cited resources being deployed on these new platforms and began asking questions on returns.
The Fandom menace
Thus, frameworks began to be built –to provide an answer to the ROI question. The notion of ROI itself was based on a broadcast environment we traditionally operated in, and so, the lowest hanging fruit was ‘reach’. It began with Facebook fans and twitter follower count races, but later morphed into harder metrics like traffic, sales, which could be measured and improved. Soon, it was not just marketing – sCRM, fStores – practically every business narrative got itself a social association and corresponding metrics.
Media gets a social life
But it was media which really did some social climbing! Using old currencies on new platforms, it converted social into social media, and everything that happened within came to be called engagement! Platforms, which had their own revenue considerations, fell over each other to make products/features useful for advertisers. In fact, you could even buy followers on Twitter, Instagram etc as well just so that vanity metrics could be quickly built without the hard work.
It wasn’t all bad for the user. Social plugins could be used to customize a user’s experience inside a site and custom applications like the Social Genome (Walmart) could be built to semantically understand a tweet and convert that into a gifting opportunity. And it’s not just the big two platforms – imagine using Foursquare data and creating interest graphs based on affinity for brands as reflected by checkins. Eg. you wouldn’t associate e-com with location based services, but imagine a fashion e-com store that allows users to connect their 4sq identity to its website. With permissions, they would have access to the user’s checkin feed. Now assume the user has been checking in to say, Puma outlets a lot. It could then incentivize the user to make a Puma purchase at the site.
The Enterprise Strikes Back
But these were probably outliers. Marketers were more interested in using social as media – advertising channels. Social data became just another layer in targeting. In addition to the platform’s own data, (eg. demographics, precise interests on Facebook) even external data (eg. Custom Audiences, FB Exchange) could be used for targeting. Most of the targeted advertising opportunities on social platforms could be scaled, and if you wanted to scale quickly, you only needed money. Organic reach became an old joke and paid amplification the new mantra. Irrelevant ads in your Facebook newsfeed, random hashtags that use contest junkies to trend, are all a result of this evolution. Finally social had been domesticated and made to fit into known marketing paradigms. It now merely amplified the inherent nature and intent of the enterprise. No wonder that Stowe Boyd said, “The phrase ‘engagement at scale’ is brands hoping that mass marketing techniques will work on the social web “
Scaled, you have?
Courtesy measurement capabilities, social was moving towards performance marketing just like its predecessor – digital. But there was one difference – on social, everyone was a publisher. As a result social data was becoming a deluge and it was becoming difficult for marketers to harness all this data and scale ‘engagement’. Enter the new buzzword – Big Data. With its 4V pillars, (volume, velocity, variety. Variability/veracity) it is evolving faster than social did and has created not just linkages to business outcomes but also implementation frameworks to use data stored within the enterprise’ own systems as well as dynamic data being generated – on social and otherwise. It would seem as though it is bound to bring balance to the force. Or is it?
As the saying goes, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess”. (~ Ronald Coase) If the intent does not change, every technological advance – social, big data and so on, will be used to further the narratives that suit the enterprise. And judging from the narratives (Dynamic Pricing, Inventory Management, Predictive Demand, Micro-segmentation etc) Big Data seems to be doing just that – furthering efficiencies @ scale and not really engagement @Scale.
Narrative Control X
If Big Data is indeed used only to expand the enterprise’ unilateral objectives, it won’t really work because when users are engaging on their own terms, it is silly to think that engagement will scale only in directions that the enterprise dictates, and in currencies that the enterprise finds value in. It’s already happening! In the larger picture, brands are being forced to negotiate narrative control. Media now has ‘earned’ in addition to paid and owned, advertising is dabbling with crowdsourcing, so are products (LEGO CUUSOO) and crowd-voted philanthropy/innovation. (Pepsi Refresh) Business itself is being crowdfunded (Kickstarter) Some have succeeded, while some have not, but the march has begun.
One of the best narratives of engagement @ scale I’ve heard is that of social business, but many of its accepted definitions are about aligning social media initiatives with business objectives. You could argue that in the final stages of evolution, a ‘business is social’ ideology would ensure that business objectives themselves are inherently social, but given the evolution of social, I’m skeptical. If I had to re-define engagement at scale, I’d start with Hugh MacLeod’s “Business is socialising with purpose”. It involves setting organisational objectives with a social-societal perspective and a purpose that users can identify with. How does one take this forward?
But first try looking at scale differently. Post industrialization, ‘scale’ has been used to symbolize an increase in quantity. But it’s also a verb, for example scale a mountain. It denotes going higher, and that’s what my thoughts of engagement @ scale (in beta) are based on.
Consider this pyramid with Maslow’s hierarchy as a context – and the needs as needs of the customer from a brand. Most of the narratives that stem from standard business objectives are operating at lower levels and pursuing efficiencies @ scale. The basic utilitarian needs a brand needs to satisfy. Think discounted price, faster delivery or issue resolution, ease of availability etc. There is a limit to scaling these currencies, even at the most personalized level. It isn’t as though it cannot operate here, but the currency will become cheaper as every other brand also starts delivering them equally well.
The smarter brands will understand that the true value is when you go higher, and they can engage a user on a narrative both can relate to. The narratives at this level are of belonging, esteem, self actualization, and the currencies lie in community, meaning, and purpose. I have used a few examples in the image – Collaborative Consumption (eg. Airbnb, Zipcar) Crowdfunding, (Mahindra – Spark the Rise) Co-creation (Threadless, Heineken Ideas Brewery) The currency becomes more valuable as users begin to invest more, and they do so because they can identify with the enterprise’ intent. Users here are not just consumers – employees, partners – everyone identifies with the business and contributes more. And when you have such an army, scaling, even in the regular business sense of quantity, becomes even more easier.
Bringing Balance to the Force
When operating at lower levels of the pyramid, brands and organisations are competing against each other for the consumer using easily replicable currencies. At higher levels, each brand has to identify a purpose, narratives and currencies whose combinations are unique to itself. For established brands, the biggest battles might be within. It requires a change of mindset, a leap of faith and it’s far from easy, but if a Culture, values, business decisions all play a part here. All this isn’t just theory, it’s most definitely feasible.
New brands that Trendwatching calls ‘Clean slate’ brands, are earning trust with radical transparency, open operations, and having environmental, ethical and social standards built into their business models and practices, thus creating narratives that are more meaningful to customers.
At an implementation level, a good example of engagement @ scale is, when done well, gamification. It forces the brand to alter the enterprise-centric engagement framework and look at it from a consumer perspective as well – his motivations intent, interests, what actions he’d like to be rewarded for and so on. Some of these might not have a direct correlation with transactional business objectives, but are essential for the game design and mechanics.
The best example I can think of at this stage is a very well established brand – Nike+. The purpose of fitness shared by the user and the brand, and on the basis of which a solid business can be built, using currencies that deal in community, and esteem. (setting goals, sharing with friends, getting encouraged)
What stops brands from doing this? I think it is a cycle we are getting into – a new phenomenon appears; we play with it for a while, and then try to fit it into business narratives at lower levels. Before we even begin to climb higher, the next phenomenon arrives and we start again. Technological advances allow brands to connect with users across platforms, devices and contexts, but for engagement to happen at scale, it is important to craft narratives that users can relate to, and find currencies that both can derive value from.
About the Author: Manu Prasad is Head- Social Media at Myntra, blogs at manuscrypts.com, and can be found on most social platforms as @manuscrypts. He attempts to bring balance to the force by writing on start-ups and restaurants (reviews) in traditional media. Views in the article are absolutely his own.