The most important asset you can have in a social media marketing program is something worth talking about - not a “message” to listen to, read or watch. There are no markets for messages, or to paraphrase the Introduction to the Institute of Medicine (2000, p.5-6) Promoting Health report, people in the health and social change communities have “messages” while the individuals they are targeting in communities have “lives.” Having lives means, among other things, that people are talking to each other as opposed to talking to someone else (that might mean you). Why do they choose to talk to some people and not others? Mainly because they share something in common, whether it is a passion for bowling, their dogs, work, Star Wars movies, a local sports team, being in the church choir, or attending Charity Balls. Jyri Engeström and Hugh MacLeod have advocated for the idea that all social networks consist of people being connected by a shared object – whether it is an intangible idea or a physical thing.
The development of social media parallels this object-centered sociality: we have sharing and SNS designed around pictures, music, videos, jobs, dating, diseases, hobbies, places and especially friends. This feature of social networks is often overlooked by many social media programs that attempt to ‘build communities’ around the producer’s interests (aka messages and brands), not people’s lives. Social networks form around social objects, not the other way around. The value of a social object is that they are transactional – they facilitate exchanges among people who encounter them. People see or hear a social object (like a juicy piece of gossip, a cute animal video) and immediately want to share it with their friends who they believe will also find it interesting, useful or entertaining. But the point of a social object is not simply to have something to share; it becomes the centerpiece of a dialogue between people.
Too frequently social media efforts try and discover something for people to share and wind up creating objects that are viewed and then forgotten in the privacy of their rooms and offices. Creating objects that “creatively communicate messages” is not the social media challenge; creating things that people talk about with each other in ways that relate to your program’s objectives is the key to having a social object. Social objects are personal, active, provocative (or surprising) and trigger natural, enthusiastic sharing.
When you hear about successful social media programs, if you look closely you will find a social object embedded in it. The easiest way to tell is by what the people involved with it are talking about. You have to listen and engage with the conversation around thier social object to get the big results in social media - not try and change it to suit your agenda. Otherwise, your social media program is just another message machine. As J.P Rangaswami put it: "If markets are conversations, then marketing is about the things that conversations are about. Not about placing those things or promoting those things, but about the things themselves.”
Institute of Medicine (2000). Promoting health: Intervention strategies from social and behavioral research. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.