What We Can Learn From Alien Hunters

The SETI@Home Project Can Teach Us Some Things About Social-Media Success

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
As the case law for social media campaigns grows more robust by the day, I'm worried that we're codifying our approaches before we've fully explored the possibilities. There's been a rush to how-to slides or top-10 lists, and frequent declarations that you're spending too little of your budget on social are meant to suggest that the jury is in, only it's not; the argument for how, where and why to apply social is less obvious and more complicated than it was even a year ago. A major problem is that much of it doesn't seem to matter to consumers, let alone make any money.

It is still time to experiment, truly, only I think we need to find cases that haven't been vetted by the social-media lobby. At risk of butchering the old adage about love, we should look for social media examples in all the right places (for example, different and/or unexpected). I've got one to get you started: the SETI@Home project's search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Scientists have long believed they might locate aliens by searching the heavens for the radiation emitted by technologies like microwaves or radio. Think ripples of waves emanating from ET popping popcorn or listening to Top 40 hits. The problem is that finding these signs is like discovering a specific speck of sand on a very large beach. The universe is just that vast, and chronically underfunded researchers don't have the computing power to crunch the data. So in 1995 they hatched a plan to distribute chunks of telescope recordings to people's personal computers, which could sift through the signals when folks weren't otherwise checking their e-mail or shopping online.

The project has so far proven that we're utterly alone in the cosmos, but at least we have one another to talk to and, in this sense, it has been a social success. Five million people from all over the world have volunteered their computers (yours truly included) and logged more than 2 million devices and 2 million years of computing time. There are message boards, competitions, meet-ups, branded swag and all the other aspects of an engaging, participatory experience. People feel a sense of meaningful membership in this endeavor that makes the smartest car or soda pop social programs seem as empty as, well, the universe might be.

Here's what I think we can learn from the alien hunters:

The importance of purpose. SETI@Home wasn't conceived as a social-media campaign but rather a social component of something more. It solved a real problem. Contrast this with many branded campaigns that have no purpose other than to deliver marketing. The search for aliens is far more authentic and credible than asking people to paste their faces on dancing elves or post videos of themselves in their cars, even as its substance is nuttier because it's serious.

Ask for legitimate involvement. It's laughable that brands would outsource designing products or advertising campaigns to The Crowd in order to come up with a reason to do social. SETI@Home asks people to do something they're absolutely qualified to do -- leave their computers turned on -- so the campaign comes across as both legitimate and substantive. If you ask consumers to vet surgical procedures they know, deep down, that they really shouldn't take you seriously (or that you don't take them so).

A sense of direction. There's nothing organically directional to most social campaigns other than the timelines of marketing plans or the limitations of budgets. Make-believe programs have make-believe conclusions and focus mostly on occupying consumers' time in the here and now. SETI@Home tracks the packets of data each computer has analyzed, and the campaign lets users compete for ranking status. A visualization graphic lets them see their progress in real time. It's always moving forward.

There are other reasons why the campaign succeeds. The work/meaning ratio skews heavily toward meaning so participants get a lot for doing practically nothing. Users receive positive reinforcement because the campaign wasn't designed and isn't open to debate or conflict, so there aren't postings of "I don't suk, u suk" on SETI message boards. It's beautifully targeted at a geek/closet geek audience that can use the campaign as a springboard to other social experiences, as I've personally found myself having to explain to my family why I'm willing to wear down our computer in such a silly, noble pursuit.

Considering only the mechanism of engagement will give you clicks on a Facebook page or a list of anonymous followers on Twitter, and looking at those numbers as promoted by your competitors dooms you to simply copying them (at best). Purpose, legitimacy and direction are core drivers of successful conversations, regardless of medium. They don't preclude being creatively funny or sexy, but I'd argue these qualities need to precede whatever awfully cute ideas your agency might throw at you.

There are other novel cases worth exploring far outside the accepted wisdom of social strategists, and I'm going to write about them occasionally in this space. Please let me know if you come across a program worth looking at. The SETI@Home campaign is just one example of what's possible.

Five million participants searching the heavens for aliens is nothing to laugh at, even if you can't help but chuckle.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at dimbulb.net and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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