People are people, even in social media

In the Digital Life survey recently released by TNS, we learn that almost two thirds of Britons don’t want to interact with brands on social networks. The survey states that mountains of digital waste, from friendless Facebook accounts to microsites that no one visits are polluting the digital space. No surprises there.

Most brands, it seems, are getting the fundamentals wrong. Especially in social media.

Supposedly blinded by the lure of glittering technology and visions of future earnings, many appear to have lost sight of how this wonderful digital stuff now available to us is actually being used by real people. Huge amounts of wishful thinking is (still) driving the creation of social campaigns. And the waste mountains just keep on growing.

People in Adland shouldn't be surprised that "people don't want to interact with brands in social media". It would seem a rather odd expectation to believe that people actually would. The word 'social' provides a decent clue as to why. Sure, people including myself will respond to content from brands in this space, but to talk about interaction? Let's not delude ourselves.

What people want from brands in simple terms are utility and entertainment. In a social context, one such utility is, of course, a brand's role as a means for self-expression. Forgive me for using the tired term 'social currency' here. Embracing this reality is the condition of entry for any brand in the social space.

It's about looking at brand content as a means for social interaction, rather than as a destination in itself.

Here's the thing: People don't really want to interact with brands if we're being strict about it; people want to interact with people, which is precisely what people want out of social media. We don't socialise with brands; we socialise with people. Hence, the thing brands should focus on in social media is to help conversations between the people there become better, richer, deeper and funnier. The conclusion that "Britons want brands to stay off social networks", would suggest that their experiences in this space thus far haven't added much value to their social interactions, but have presumably been perceived as interruptive, broadcast-esque visual noise, irritating their eyeballs.

Brands should broadcast to people when people want to be broadcast to - in front of the TV - and they should help people be, well, more social in places where this is what they've come for.

Marketers need to understand that approaching social media with a broadcast mentality is utterly futile. What they need, ironically, is nothing different from what great brand building and advertising have always been based on: a profound understanding of people and what motivates us. The obvious addition being that brands now also need an understanding of human behaviour and interaction in the digital space, as well as creativity and the right digital capabilities to exploit it.

For a majority of organisations, it's safe to say that this requires unlearning of old habits to varying degrees in order to create space for a new, social approach to brand building to move in. Technologists are an absolutely critical part of this equation. But as they move in, it is paramount that their skills can effectively marry advertising's cornerstone: a profound understanding of human nature. Because in silo, digital know-how offers little or no value.

Whilst the industry is ostensibly grappling with this 'new' reality, I can't help but feel that the more things change the more they stay the same. Because at a fundamental level, the hallmark of great brand thinking hasn't changed in the slightest: it remains rooted in an understanding of people. And more often than not it is this understanding that unlocks the Big Idea - substance for people to talk about and be social around. Irrespective of channel.

Author: Fredrik Särnblad

Fredrik Sarnblad