The Penny Drops About Social Media & Networking

Its funny how you think you understand something and then you have an experience which gives you a new and deeper grasp of what’s actually going on.

The other day I had the good fortune to spend a little time with some people who work for the Woodland Trust. These people are at the forefront of what I would call ‘Cause Related Marketing’ in the digital space. They have a really deep sense and understanding of the notion community engagement and how getting it right can transform the sense of a Brand in the mind and experience of key stakeholders.

If you glance back at previous posts on this blog you will find that a common theme is a questioning of the validity and effectiveness of the so called traditional ‘managerialist’ mindset. In particular there is an implied concern that ‘career marketeers’ remain broadly unaware of the philosophical foundations on which their ideas and actions stand.

Let me make myself clear before going on. I am all for gathering helpful evidence, I am all for metrics and trying to articulate the likely return on a resource investment and I don’t think self indulgent creativity has a place in organisations with specific goals and purposes. Crucially though the ‘metrics’ should help not hinder (Norton and Kaplan) the achievement of goals, they should leave room for entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, not strangle it to death. There has to be the will and realisation in any organisation that the future can’t be known with absolute certainty and that re-ploughing the same furrow might keep you on the safe and familiar but it results in increasingly deeper furrows that are harder to get out of.

Now I realise that ‘bottom lines’, ‘bums on seats’, ‘cash in boxes’ are unequivocal measures of immediate effectiveness. They are also very short term and very simplistic. When I worked in the gaming industry people claimed to make rational decisions on the R.O.I. of the product purchases they made on a weekly basis. Sure enough there was a correlation between value and volume. What nobody could explain was the ‘affinity’ that buyers had for certain brands that guided their purchase decisions when the ‘numbers’ weren’t so clear cut. This affinity made a monetary difference over the longer term.

Affinity is subjective. Causes are subjective. A ‘Cause’ is an emotional concept. It is an ‘attitude object’ held in the mind of the individual. Causes are inextricably tied to people’s sense of identity and purpose. These are the deepest of values. People support causes with money if and only if they ‘believe’ in them. That’s not to say there aren’t utilitarian reasons for supporting a charity such as tax benefits or educational benefits. Nonetheless people can choose where to put their charity dollar, and supporting a belief runs deeper than a mere exchange of cash.

If you aren’t measuring values, affinity and beliefs as well as financials its like just measuring someone’s height and overlooking their diet to check how healthy they are.

You only have to dip into the digital space to see that there is a continuous conversation about justifying social media and networking activities, about how to convince the unconvinced. Give the decision makers the ‘numbers’ and they will jump on board is the line of some. Many nevertheless have a strong sense that is only part of the story because the ‘social space is different’. This line invariably gets shot to pieces because traditional ‘marcomms’ see it as not very different at all, just old wine in new bottles, what we’ve always done…but with a computer or mobile phone.

This is where the penny needs to drop.

We can talk about getting customers, consumers, subscribers to engage, to take part in the conversation, to have a sense of community. We say we need to get them ‘to engage’, ‘to converse’ to join ‘the community’. Two things to ponder here. Firstly traditional marcomms minded managers might pay lip service to these notions because they are new and trendy, yet they will revert to media management type when doing the day job. Second if you talk about digital marketing in this way you are unwittingly expressing yourself in typical positivistic objective management language therebye unwittingly reinforcing the ‘status quo’.

The point is that digital marketing is done ‘with’ others not ‘to’ them. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the traditional seller and buyer sense of the arrangement. The people who work for a cause are not separate and different from the people who support the cause, they are one and the same. The cause is the unifying theme. This has profound implications for traditional product and service industries too. There are glimpses of this with for example Apple workers, customers and fans, and Norton motorcycle workers, customers and fans. (see Adamson, Garry; Jones, Warwick; Tapp, Alan. Journal of Database Marketing & Customer Strategy Management, Jan2006, Vol. 13 Issue 2)

It has a basis in ethical trading and a sense of providing value and service, of care and concern for others rather than seeing them as a financial resource from which to extract as much cash as quickly as possible.

What digital marketing seems to be saying is that the issue is not ‘what’ money should we make but ‘how’ we should make it. Traditional marketing may have developed relationship and service flavours in its migration from 1960s consumer marketing. Maybe ‘community marketing’ is a conceptual evolution of marketing in the making. An ethically grounded way of doing business. Conventional business might take a serious look at charities and causes as a way to enhance their brands.

The Woodland Trust are walking the talk.

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