What's the difference between going to a party with old and new friends and visiting a nightclub? With the former, you get to be surrounded by a bunch of people you feel good about around a common theme and with no commercial backdrop whatsoever. Maybe during the fun, you create something of value; a new connection, a business idea, a deep romance or the discovery of a new food or drink you like. Noone has an agenda for you other than the host hoping you have a great time and his or her pay off is that they will get a subsequent invitation where you invite them to enjoy some of the same. That's what we call social isn't it?
When you go to a club, you are greeted at the door by bouncers who judge if you fit in, pay your entrance fee and enter an environment designed to entice your wallet towards that drink with the highest mark up. You may be in a social group of course, but the chances are it will be just a handful of your friends and rather than being yourself, you will likely adapt your persona to fit into the style of that particular club. The girl you fancy across the dancefloor is seeing the 'you' which you think might get you laid, but probably not the person that was at the party the week before! Sure it's fun and part of the mix, but it's not 'social'; it's called 'entertainment'.
I've just read this post by a great guy called Jonathan Salem Baskin on Adage and whilst much of what he says I agree with, overall I think he's missing the point. Facebook, Twitter et al are nightclubs in my analogy and popular though they may be; they aren't social, they're entertainment... or at least that, in my opinion, is how brands should treat them.
The idea that as a brand, you can engage with people and be part of their real life conversations 'socially' in a nightclub is of course ludicrous. You simply have an audience and you are selling your wares to that audience. Sure a 'happy hour' on cocktails always works and people will talk about it throughout their groups, but noone gives a shit about the sponsor really and the advertising around the building is no more or less an inconvenience than the ones in the American Idol ad breaks which just go with the territory. The owners of the club (Facebook, Twitter etc.) may be the hottest dudes around, but they're misleading you if they try and tell you they have some special stewardship which gives them direct access to your personal choices. The only way that could happen would be to bug the toilets and monitor the conversations of girls renewing their make up, but that would be a disgusting breach of civil liberties wouldn't it?
So to some fundamental root problems that need to be addressed...
Remember; YOUR home is YOUR castle and you are the king of that and your personal identity and you choose how to portray both. You choose who to let in and what you want them to see when you are there and the brands on display are ones you've selected, not someone else. The B&O TV, Jimmy Choo shoes and Prada handbag speak to who you are or want to be... you're not sponsored to like them, you just do. Likewise, you know you can say what you want in there and it is private. There's no risk of it being used to define you by any third party and when friends come over you may barter some of your value; the cakes you made, a dress that doesn't fit or theatre tickets you can't use. If you recommend a plumber, you do so honestly and get the same value back when you need something. That's social interaction and unless as a brand you are in at that level, then stop kidding yourself that you are engaging socially with your customers. It's just bullshit!
Now let's say you as an individual really own your 'digital' you. Not as a joint venture, but 100% and you want to replicate your 'social' life online. The start point has to be the ability to own your own home or lease it in a way that ensures everything that happens behind the front door is yours first and foremost. Some people rent their 'castles, some buy them and some live with their parents but have their own bedroom with the same rules applying; and you can pay for that privilege in numerous ways which is of course your perogative and down to your own circumstances.
Regardless of the way you pay, it's still YOUR place. If you are a social person and lots of people value your choices, then any benefit to be had for influencing your friend's choices within that place must rightfully be yours. Celebrities not only get paid for endorsing brands, they rarely pay for the brands themselves. Why shouldn't you deserve the same proportionate benefit however small? Similarly, everyone has an area of expertise nowadays, whether it's just being a mum or say as an awesome specialist photographer with a passion for trains. If I said that millions of train lovers or mums might pay you a few cents for your expertise if you allowed them into your digital home, then would you open up and be motivated to share 'socially'? I bet you would. Likewise if I offered you a selection of brands that you could choose, which you felt best reflected your personality and the likely choices of your friends and gave you the majority share of revenue for some elegant adverts adjacent to your digital home; would you spend some time to make that look as nice as you would your kitchen or dining room. I think so.
Your Facebook, Twitter, Google etc. profiles aren't social. They're just entertainment. Until you own your own home within those environments, you wouldn't and shouldn't really open up the real you to anyone. There are moves to trick you into installing mikes into your living room on an opt out basis and you should be well aware of that. If you like stuff on Facebook and RT brand messages for free, in my opinion you're a mug. Save that for when you meet in person, where you are still in charge and own the lion's share of your own value creation or until a platform which respects you as an individual and the sanctity of your own home comes along!
To brands; I understand the challenges, but if you want to stand out from the crowd, you shouldn't be dumbing yourself to a level playing field and being complicit in raping targeting data from people, will do you no favours in the long run. You're the guys who are paying the bills and if you treat the digital individual and their digital homes with respect, they will eventually welcome you in... and in a way which is meaningful.
Social media isn't social yet. It will become social though in my view. As my telephone as a utility enables me to work, socialise, be entertained and play so social networking platforms are equally a utility, but the conversation and content will always be mine and needs to happen within my own space, built on ground I can trust. It doesn't exist yet, but when it does, the next challenge will be fuelling aspiration and where you go if you really do stand out from the crowd. I'll leave you to guess who that landlord will be!
In the meantime and in the world of 'digital land', I want to own my own home and when I do, you're all invited to a party! ......and that by the way, is when we really know we are 'friends' and the supposed ambition becomes a reality and not just a smokescreen! ;-)
(BTW if you are a leading global brand, give me a call... our first few in are more than just Clients and Friends, they are major Partners.)