Got Relevance?

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Solis: Good social science makes for good social marketing.
Solis: Good social science makes for good social marketing.

Brian Solis started out as a tech PR guy in Ventura. Twenty years later he finds himself one of the high priests of digital communications, a sought-after keynote speaker and author of The End of Business As Usual, which introduced marketers to Generation C—the C standing for connected.

We recently connected with Brian by phone (You read it here: The Sultan of Social Media does engage in such antiquated communications forms on occasion) to talk about key themes from his new book, What's the Future of Business? It's a printed-on-paper book, very Gutenbergian, though Solis did his best to digitize it, making it square in shape and opening each new chapter with a virtual slider inviting navigation to other chapters.

Here are some of his thoughts on marketing with social media, brand loyalty, and why marketers need psychologists—to work with them, not on them.

What's the biggest thing social media has taught us about people that we didn't know before?

I don't know that it's taught us anything more than it's reminded us that it all comes down to people. We used to look at audience demos and create campaigns and messages and infrastructures to cater to these almost faceless people, and social media has reintroduced us to the people formerly known as the audience, as [NYU professor] Jay Rosen once said. We learned that people are behind the reactions, and their shared experiences are defining conversations across the social web. It creates an audience that has an audience that has an audience. Brands are now in the hands of these connected societies.

How do marketers get a handle on them?

It requires a degree of social science, including basic psychology, visual psychology, and ethnography, Those businesses that employ social scientists will do a better job of it.

Your new book delves into the what you call “the psychology of social commerce.” Define it.

It's based on the research of Robert Cialdini, which looks at the importance of behavior and emotion in making choices in a connected society. What people share online is based purely on an emotional reaction to something. This introduces something businesses are not familiar with. You don't hear about emotions in the boardroom, just decisions based on spreadsheets. You have to understand the psychology of social commerce to be able to invest in the emotions you want people to react to.

Online reviews are emotional reactions. Do marketers have to pay attention?

It's something you can view as a risk or an advantage. If people love something and they share it, it's highly contagious. You used to hear that an angry customer would tell many more people about the experience than a happy customer, but that was before media became so accessible. We think we now have the ability to publish our emotions on a whim. That changes everything. There are four moments of truth that affect the customer journey. People used to check Google, friends, magazines, and websites during those moments of truth. Now they rely on the experiences of other people because they can trust it. They're talking in online communities, social networks, review apps. It's now more important than ever before [for marketers] to excel in each moment of truth. You have to define shared experiences.

If social media is so important, why do marketers still spend so little money on it?

The reason business spends so much money on TV is because, for the most part, it kinda works. If you can reach millions of people, chances are something's going to stick. But if brands can activate a Twitter conversation, people are not only seeing the [the brands], but also talking about them. Numbers go through the roof. In social and mobile, we're learning that context is more is more important than content. The message can't just be something interesting or creative, but something natively relative of the culture of the network. What works on Facebook is not going to work on BuzzFeed or Twitter. Something immersive, something aligned around a story, feels less intrusive [than traditional media]. The ecosystem of TV is a static device pushing information at you.

But companies' personnel budgets are strained. They're already light on marketing talent. Working social media correctly sounds so complicated and time-consuming.

Yes, but that's a good thing. It allows you to find a competitive advantage. Yes, there are now soooo many ways to reach and engage customers and consumers. At the end of the day, the worst thing that can happen is you find a way to become more relevant.

With so much choice and so much information available, are Generation C and brand loyalty disparate concepts?

Actually, brand loyalty is something that can be stronger than ever before. It just requires a different approach. The word loyalty means so much more now. Millenials and connected older consumers who act like them have a different concept of loyalty now. They might align with Nike for what they stand for and not for what athletes wear them. What's at the heart of your brand? It has to have a human extension. There should be an addendum to the ultimate question in an NPS score. Instead of asking people would you recommend our product, ask them did you recommend our product. Create a new a new metric called the SEV, the Shared Experience Value.

The smartphone explosion is like Christmas to direct marketers. Everybody has a personal connection device and marketers know who they are, where they are, and what they're doing. Will privacy concerns end the party?

How older generations define privacy and how younger ones do is very different. Older demos are much more cautious and cynical. Of course, it used to take an effort to live a public life. Publicity is something you used to pay for. Now, it's almost like privacy is something you have to pay for. The thing is, when you live in public you start to crave it, so it's not like it's going to go backward. Make no mistake, we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg. We have apps that measures how you sleep—information connected to people's tablets about their bodies and they're broadcasting it. Marketers have access to all this data, but again, they have to make decisions about what to do with it, how to be relevant.

In the book you say user experience—or UX—is going to be critical to gaining relevancy with customers. Give us an example.

The role of user experience is to learn how to best make engagement. The design of the new book is calculated to bring out this point. I was well into writing the book when I said, wait a minute, what am I doing here? What am I trying to accomplish? Just sell books? I ended up rewriting the table of contents six times. I went to the publisher and said, let's look at how people are reading content online, how they are using and enjoying apps, and let's consider what a book could be if you could take paper and turn it into an analog website. They ended up turning creative control to me and I turned to an agency called Mekanism, whose people are really disruptive in their thinking, to help put it together. The point is, if you can't find a way to find relevance, you're going to have your budget taken away.

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