Brand “Engagement” vs. Social Connectivity

One of the themes I’ve occassionally hit on in this blog is that fandom is not just about celebrities and athletes, it can also happen around brands (Trader Joe’s being one exemplar), and smart brands will figure out more and more ways to make this happen around them. The always-informative blog Micro Persuasion has an excellent post up critiquing the concept of “brand engagement” in which Steve Rubel argues:

The engagement myth is built on an insatiable desire to get consumers obsessed with our brands. That’s because TV advertising ain’t what it used to be. Often “engagement” is achieved through digital technology. Problem is, consumers don’t want to be “digitally engaged” with us. They’re only into each other.

As marketers, we shouldn’t care about brand engagement. Instead we should focus on how we get people connected with each other and measure the number of times we helped them do so. That’s why venues such as Second Life, YouTube, Facebook and other social networks are so hot: They allow people to connect with each other.

If you want to see engagement, find the right communities, build programs that empower people to connect, then get out of the way. Your brand will get a lift purely through association.

This is so right on, whether you’re talking brands or famous people. When you get people connected to one another and invested in their social relationships, they want to stay connected to each other. If your brand is the vehicle that allows them to do that, then they’re going to stay connected to your brand. Soap fans have been watching lame soaps for years in order to stay involved in their soap fan communities, music fans have been buying new records by artists they haven’t really liked since their first two albums just so they can trash them with the fans they’ve been talking to for years.

More and more, marketing = community management. But community management is an entirely different beast from advertising, in fact I’d argue that the more the former looks like the latter, the more doomed it is to fail. How do you “find the right communities”? How do you “get people connected” and measure how often it happened? How do you “build programs that empower people to connect”? Unless you’re a super lucky or genius marketer, they don’t happen just because you’ve realized it’s the way to go. Having been so deeply enmeshed with the Association of Internet Researchers and followed internet research so closely for so many years now, I know these things can be done, even if they don’t always work out the way the planners anticipated (or — more accurately — even if they never work out the way the planners anticipated), but I’m also astutely aware of how much complexity there is to these problems.

As an aside, I can’t help but note that one reason Facebook, YouTube, and Second Life are so hot is that they are getting press coverage as though they were a brand new phenomenon. Fact is, USENET had way more users than these platforms do now more than a decade ago. Connecting online is still hot, but it’s not new, no matter what Web 2 hype overcomes us. But I’ll save the rest of that commentary for another post.

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