As more and more people and brands take to producing digital content, a group of individuals has arisen with the goal of filtering the wheat from the chaff. I had the pleasure of interviewing the curator of the popular site Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, and picking her brain on this topic. The role of people like Maria will only become more important in the future, and her insights are well-worth consideration. If you have questions for Maria, feel free to leave them in the comments or send her a tweet. Enjoy.
Like a room packed with strangers, a crowded industry can be daunting. It's intimidating wondering how you can possibly get all these people to notice you.
The truth is, you won't. At least not at first.
If you want to get to know people at a party full of strangers, your best bet isn't to stand up on the table and announce your entry -- it's to find one of the circles of three or four people and start a conversation. That's your chance to give them a reason to remember you, to relate to them through mutual relationships or interests. By the end of the night you won't have the attention of the whole community, but you'll have a few new friends who can introduce you to others.
Unfortunately, many brands are impatient; they want everyone's attention, and they want it now. In the classic marketing book Positioning, the authors call this folly The Everybody Trap.
The Everybody Trap is deceptive because of its apparent logic. More people means more sales. Niche marketing means niche sales. Go big or go home.
But this line of logic leads to failure for everyone besides the already established leaders. Companies like Google, IBM, or Coke can afford to pander to everyone, and they often do. The rest of us are challengers, and the only way to succeed is to build our business one niche at a time.
Here's my take.
A social media strategy is a designed experience that utilizes the technological and cultural shifts towards sharing online. This implies several important characteristics of social media strategies.
Emphasis on Design
To say that something is designed implies two important things: it's something that you build or create, and it's something that you plan. To say that something is poorly designed is essentially to say that it was either poorly planned or poorly built.
While participating in social media may involve conversations, "talk to your customers" is not a social media strategy. While it may create an experience, it is not a designed one -- it lacks the planning necessary to be compelling.
Likewise, "listen to your customers" is not a social media strategy either. It is not an experience at all, but rather the research phase which precedes the design.
But the defining mark of these social media experiences, that unfortunately often overshadows the role of design-oriented thinking, is that they have something to do with social networks. Having a fan page, Twitter account, or YouTube channel are all too often substituted for a well-thought out approach to creating an experience.
Sure, people can interact with fan pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels, but just because they can doesn't mean they will.
With that in mind, let's look at some social media strategies that successfully create experiences that users want to interact with.
- Burger King: Whopper Sacrifice
- IKEA: Facebook Photo Tagging Competition
- The Dark Knight: Why So Serious Campaign
- Comcast: Comcast Cares Twitter Account
- Vodafone: Madame Tresesti
While none of these are perfect, they are all examples of well-designed experiences. Whether it's the engrossing fictional narrative of The Dark Knight or the humorous approach of Whopper Sacrifice, each of these campaigns succeeded because they were carefully designed. From the big ideas down to the tiniest details, they were carefully crafted with the goals of the brand and the attitudes of the audience in mind.
Last night's NCAA basketball championship was a classic sports event. It had all the necessary ingredients. A big stage. A real-life match up of David vs. Goliath. A sports powerhouse against an up & coming private school. It was the film hoosiers come to life (minus the fact the underdog lost on the final shot).
While I was rooting for Duke, having been born and raised in North Carolina during the 1990's, almost everyone else was rooting for Butler. The reason is simple. Butler was the underdog, and humans have an innate love of the underdog.
Psychologists call it the underdog effect. They refer to is as the activation of the underdog schema. This occurs whenever we see a disadvantaged opponent. We root for the gazelle when it's chased by lions. Put simply, we root for anyone attempting to accomplish a difficult task in the face of low odds.
But why do humans have an underdog schema? The answer is two-fold. The first reason is: we strive to be unique, and who we root for sends a signal to the rest of the world. If the obvious choice is Duke, then it's best to root for Butler. After all, there's nothing really at stake in fandom. So the need to be different makes us more likely to root against the "popular" choice.
The second reason is that humans are naturally empathetic. It's a capability that allows us to live effectively as a social animal. Compassion is hard-wired into humanity. And empathy allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of the underdog. We identify with them, and seek to translate their accomplishments to our own. If David can beat Goliath, than I too can overcome impossible odds.
But, the underdog effect isn't limited to sports. We root for companies just like we root for teams. Apple, Dyson, Method, Virgin Airlines, Mini, etc. These brands are effective because they position themselves as challengers, not leaders. Choosing a product from one of these companies tells the world that you're not like everyone else (despite the fact 300,000 other people have the exact same iPad).
While people love underdogs, they never choose them in the face of their own self-interest. You never take a mortgage out with a struggling bank, and you never buy a house in a half-built community.
So how do the successful underdogs do it? They succeed because they create products that are superior when viewed through their particular worldview. Is Method's hand soap better than Dial? It's more expensive, but you probably wouldn't consider it better unless you have the same worldview as they do (sustainability=good & chemicals=bad).
Underdog companies don't compete on features. They compete by aligning with your worldview and creating products that fit your personal definition of a better product.
Most people think of their performance curve as a shark fin. They believe they do excellent work most of the time, average work sometimes and substandard work very occasionally.
However, this is a classic case of illusory superiority bias in action (it's the same reason 75% of people rate themselves as above average drivers).
The reality is: your performance curve is much more likely to resemble a bell curve than a shark fin.
But, this doesn't mean you can't improve. You can. Through deliberate practice (challenging yourself and gathering feedback), you can move the bell curve to the right. You're essentially changing the frame of reference that you use to rate yourself. By trying to make sure each subsequent performance is better than the last performance, you can slowly move the bell curve.
For example, you may think you're a great basketball player. But, compared to the average player in the NBA you're terrible. On their worst day they're still exponentially better than you are on your best day. The same holds for golf, marketing strategy or design.
You have to compare yourself to people that are better than you. This requires a humility that some people can't stomach. It's hard to admit that you're not as good as you think you are (or as good as you pretend to be). But, that's the only way you can move the bell curve to the right.
Many businesses that have turned to things like contests or giveaways to reward consumer-attention have found an eerie silence in place of participants. The question hangs heavily in the air for them, are people even interested in participating with brands?
Thankfully, I've found they are. The problem isn't that people aren't willing to engage directly with marketers. Consumers are really quite okay with that; the problem is that many engagements provide a reward without providing a rewarding experience. They're all destination and no journey.
An example of doing it right, the video below summarizes a recently executed effort by the entertainment company Ubisoft. In preparation for the launch of the next game in their Xbox series Splinter Cell, Ubisoft launched an epic treasure hunt of a campaign, sprinkling rewards along the way. The campaign was quite successful, attracting 106,000 site visitors and generating 3,554 forum posts in roughly a month's time. You can read a more thorough analysis of the campaign at this blog.
Besides the epic scale of implementation (the campaign had users viewing source code behind web pages, watching videos, calling telephone numbers, and cracking codes in sign language and binary patterns), what I love most about this campaign is how well the team behind it understands the desires of their customers.
What keeps most people from getting involved in branded contests or activities isn't the quality of the prize. In fact, most companies go above and beyond on the final prize, but fall short all along the way.
What consumers are really looking for is an experience that is rewarding in and of itself. The prize, whether it be money, products or something else, is only a logical justification for the time spent.
The good news is that you don't have to fork over cash prizes or product grab bags every time you want to reward users for giving you their valuable time and attention. Often, the most valuable rewards you can create are psychological in design -- things like a sense of accomplishment, a status symbol, or a good laugh. These are the types of things that make a journey worth while.
Whether it's a Ford Fiesta movement, a Whopper Sacrifice, or something as simple as a photo contest, remember that when you're relying on users to power a campaign, the journey matters as much, if not more, than the destination. By embedding motivators throughout the process, rather than just at the end, you'll draw a much higher rate of participation.