Online social spaces are a quagmire. While they were primarily created for people to engage and share ideas, the prevailing subtext is less noble. You can start a revolution, join a collaboration or just be human inside that virtual world- with real-world effects, or you can
spend waste hours watching fake videos.
Hello, brand invasion. Like the Portugese traders of yesteryear, the brands arrived bearing trinkets we couldn’t refuse. A pair of sunglasses for a “like”. A T-Shirt for a “follow”. Some even trade comments, page visits, emails, photos or simply a click-through. And so we trade happily and frivolously, indulging the offerings and running back to the village boasting our “gains”. It’s playful. What we never counted on was the brands taking it too seriously.
Facebook today is a mess as a result (and trying to recover). Twitter is fast going the same route- with the brakes on. People like, follow, talk, share and get entertained by brands- not so much by people anymore. But in the real world, we don’t talk about brands really- unless there’s a strong emotional event attached to the brand. And the brands with their agencies love it. They see the effect and keep pumping the same strategy because, well, it’s working. Can you say viral? That’s codeword for success. But I think they’re confusing correlation and causation…
In the real world, people engage with people. When last did you go down to your favourite brand’s spot and just enjoy the company of their people- not their product? Hang out with the VP, shoot the breeze with the software guy, have coffee with the secretary….? You see, it’s not really a meaningful relationship. I mean, you don’t invite BrandX to dinner ever, do you (as a consumer)? And if you did, who/what would you invite anyway?
I can understand the economic models around social media; online presence and returns (and dangers). What you do with money makes the world go twirly-wirly and we all benefit in the long term (or supposed to at any rate). In much the same way the Portugese traders arriving could be argued as a good thing (well, at least it wasn’t on the same scale as the Spanish strategy of “submit or die”), the brand-invading-social event can be a good thing. We do need to remind ourselves though: who ended up ruling the land?
I used to see ordinary people having meaningful conversations about love, life, the universe- academic revolutions, religious and philosophical debates- the “essentials” of living- on social spaces. Now we share a TED video for that. Like it. Follow someone. (I still see those conversations, but not in the spaces where you’d think they’d be)
People are having conversations about how a brand’s t-shirt changed their lives- competing to win a freebie; vying for position of “influencer”- for more freebies. Their motives are ulterior, emotions cliched, strategies shallow. The brand invasion changed the way people engage and altered the energy distribution: they changed the game. Even the big issues; a war in Somalia? Don’t worry, retweet this and BrandX will donate $1 to aid…
In the social spaces, the revolutions were organised by people. The masses were mobilised by people. Action was effected by people. The real conversations took place between people. Brands can’t do that. They risk segmenting their market and losing revenue if their position is too strong on one side (and the market is 50/50): the quintessential diplomat.
And yes, this is a general discussion. And yes again, there is an example out there which can be used as an argument to counter any one of the points above. It’s easy to pick out one example because it stands out as one example against the norm. And that’s the point really- it’s an outlier. Cult-brands aside…
Ultimately, there is a space and a place for brands online- even on Facebook. Some will invade the popular mediums and behave like a weed, others will grow in harmony. Some will appeal to the base and primitive needs of online-man and continue to trade likes for product. Economically, there is only so much you can give away before you realise you have a fanbase of 100000 followers who only want a freebie- and are not interested in actually paying for your product. The Groupon effect. Others will make a real difference.
In the meantime, social spaces will struggle to be personal and meaningful. When they don’t succeed on the whole, the people will move into another space where they can touch base with the personal and meaningful; the stuff that makes them human. Maybe one day we’ll all be back chatting on ##family… or on BBM.
And that’s precisely why a relevant and meaningful social space can’t be invaded (in the offensive sense) by a brand. The energy inside a relevant space is dynamic, powerful, unpredictable. It demands a constant stream of energy. Brands need constraints, constructs, predictable returns and an efficient communication mechanism relative to their budgets. The inefficiency and chaos of a real conversation is what makes it beautiful and adds dimension, frustration, inspiration, colour and emotion.