We intuitively understand the power of our social nets.
They are part of the fabric of our lives. Liking and sharing are natural behaviors; Facebook and Twitter are platforms for our personal expression.
For businesses and brands though, harnessing these nets with intent for business purposes is tough…often elusive. Most businesses wriggle around on the friendship graph, entreating others to follow and like them, stumbling forward through a fog of loose connections.
The gist of the challenge is ingrained in the naturalness of the social web itself. It’s a reflecting pool for our lives and public by design. Whispers become amplified; conversations become a form of attention grabbing media themselves.
The social web is host to an ongoing live channel with ‘us’ as the star, innately external and globally immediate. This is key to both its power and to channeling the subtleties to make it actionable.
Think of it this way.
Being a natural communicator and performer with genuineness, poise, excitement and humility is no small feat on or offline. That’s the realm of stars and performers.
Being natural in the spotlight and publicly poised is just not that ‘natural’ for most of us.
For businesses hidden behind a URL online rather than the archetypal counter at the local store, the separation creates uneasiness. Being face-to-face shines an easy light on our personal foibles. Being ourselves on the web is akin to performing on a global real-time stage. If only the professional performers can play here, this is zero sum game.
Self-help lists for the online marketer or tips for the tweeting CEO are just not enough nor that useful. People and companies need less dressing up and polish and more context for conversations. Being genuine is more powerful than being professional.
Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void fame, sheds light on this in a great post defining what he calls ‘social objects’. For him, context is discoverable in a social object that encapsulates interests and passions. It’s a connecting node on the mesh of the interest graph.
He also alludes to the need to embrace the inner geekiness behind every social object.
Wine geeks. Gardening geeks. Foodies. Motorcycle fanatics. Rabid sports fans. The web lets us follow our interests globally, immediately and with uncanny depth. We are all like a ten-year old kid rattling off facts on dinosaurs. We live in a world of passionate geeks searching for communities of interest. I’m certainly one.
He’s onto something.
I posted about context as a filter over friendship and how the interest graph is the playing field for connections and dynamic communities of interest. Hugh’s social objects are islands of aggregated passion around an interest that cuts through the noise of friendly social chatter and surfaces like safe harbors on this graph.
This just works. Focus on your interests as the language for connection, and passion as the rhythm for communications and you are not performing, simply conversing.
What does this mean for businesses?
Everything…with a twist.
It’s too easy to state that we want a conversation between company and customer. While true, it doesn’t bring you any closer to action than would a list of general ‘to do’s’ for your Facebook fan page.
This is the action gap personified.
A market’s need for context and connected interest is not well served with lists that skirt the issue and spiral away from a solution. The gap is real. The solution requires a new and more focused lens on the situation.
Few companies have rock star CEO or CMO bloggers. Or big juicy viral topics that connect the masses in a sweeping horizontal flash. Or are brilliantly coy in their poise.
But all companies have passion points. If you are a start-up, that’s what drove you to create your business and solve a market problem. If you have market traction, that’s why your customers come back and engage with you.
Building a brand is hard. Finding a phrase that captures your core value is elusively magical. Marketing needs to lead this process, but as a discipline is behind in understanding its role.
These passion points are true for disruptive companies bent on transforming the world, like Etsy with an artisanal marketplace or Kickstarter with crowd-sourced funding. True also for the most vertical niche like custom snow boards. Or just stuff we love in our neighborhoods like a farm-to-table local restaurant or a natural wine bar with weekly tastings.
Companies like Shopbop accomplish this through a great shopping interface that make purchasing women’s clothes online easy and fun. Or Boxee, through an easy flowing, information rich enthusiast and product blog. Or communities like Ravelry for knitters or SEOmoz for search experts
For every possible slice of the universal marketplace pie there is a unique vernacular and a singular bridge to connection.
You need to start the process of discovering your marketplace with this bridge. Your customers won’t tell you what language to speak but they will let you know you have it right when they start talking back.