The first bit is true: brands have access to the same status-update box as consumers, and their updates go into the same stream as consumers' real, human friends. But that does not necessarily mean that brands have to act -- or create content -- just like people. Why? Brands aren't people.
People are complex organisms, products of tens of thousands of years of evolution. Brands are a device invented relatively recently to make it easier for consumers to identify a product and differentiate it from its competitors. Most people, when encountering brands online, realize that there may be humans associated with it, but the brand itself isn't a person.
"But why not try to make my brand as human-like as possible?" you might say. Consumers don't want brands to be people. In a CEB survey conducted last year, we found that only 23% of consumers have brand relationships -- and they are already fans of the brand in question. The rest aren't interested in a relationship, regardless of whether they like a brand or not.
"What about all those Facebook fans?" you ask. They come for discounts and offers (61% and 55%, respectively), not to feel connected or join a community. People want to interact with brands as the commercial entities they are, not as the human entities that marketers wish they were. Typical engagement strategies are either very low-impact or actively annoying to the majority of consumers -- clearly not the highest-ROI option.
In the same CEB study, we found an epidemic of indecision, brand-switching and attrition among consumers making purchases: 70% put off the brand decision until they're at the point of purchase, and 20% continue to do product research after purchase. The biggest culprit for this kind of behavior is cognitive overload -- a condition where consumers have absorbed so much information that they're incapable of mentally sorting it all and making an optimal decision. Brands' strategy of imitating people -- and spinning out content designed to drive brand engagement -- can ultimately add to consumer cognitive overload. This isn't helping.
The danger of relationship-based, engagement-focused, "human" brands is more apparent when you look inside the marketing organization. To make brands more responsive, engaging and human, marketing leaders have gone hard after certain types of employees: agile, knowledgeable of trends, digitally-savvy, biased toward action, and with a strong willingness to experiment.
If not humanity, then, what should brands be striving for?
Strive to help consumers simplify their noisy lives. Facilitating honest consumer-to-consumer advice and making the purchase as simple as possible will net you more goodwill than a million "engaging" Facebook updates.
Re-orient marketing toward long-term goals. Use measures of customer health -- such as loyalty, share of wallet and individual customer development -- to evaluate brand and functional performance. Avoid the transactional metrics typical of social-media platforms.
Hire for the ability to doggedly focus on a few higher-order goals. Bring in staff that will excel despite distractions, setbacks, or long periods without feedback, rather than hiring for digitally-savvy, energetic and agile marketers.