The search for status is a basic human desire, and it's been at the heart of marketing strategies for the past three generations. When we wanted to appeal to status, we could be sure that people judged their worth by an almost universal set of tangible possessions.
Things are beginning to shift, though, in the direction of digital. Status isn't just symbolized by the car we drive or the house we own, but increasingly by success in the chase for LinkedIn connections to our networks, Facebook "likes," Twitter followers or the endless array of flare and badges available as we progress through the online, social and gaming worlds.
What might be the implications for marketing?
What counts in the virtual world is very different from what got our parents and grandparents juiced up. In the 1960s you pulled up to the white picket fence in the 'burbs and went to bed knowing you had made it. You knew your worth, and everybody else did too -- they could see and touch it. The '80s was a decade of big hair -- and big everything else –- and status was gauged accordingly by square footage, engine size or just the ability to pay through the nose for it all. The status symbols of the last 30 years passed in a blur: luxury brands, highest-end electronics, life-size flat screens–- all objects of tangible value, and packaged and fed to us in an endless cycle of reality TV about the lives of the no-doubt rich and somewhat famous.
Now social clout and earned power have joined the mix. You can measure your virtual clout online. The most famous site, begun in 2008, is Klout. Your score is derived from three factors: how many people you influence, how much you influence them and the influence of your network.
Empire Avenue measures the value of your engagement and contacts on social networks. Your scores form a large part of your share price. As people buy into what you say and the content you create, your network value and share price will increase. In your dashboard, you can track your achievements, who has invested in you and how your investment in others is trending. You can buy, sell and recommend stock in people's social media prowess. It's status approved by the crowd.
Marketing will need to adjust to these sorts of indexes as they grow in popularity, but maybe not as much as you would think. However you measure it, the mechanics of gaining status haven't changed.
The desire starts in childhood. Girl Scouts earn merit badges for achievements. Frequent-flyer programs are the same thing for adults. The silver, gold, platinum and diamond tag on your bag is a modern-day merit badge.
This translates in the digital world into virtual bragging rights. Gaming brands offer incentives to get players to "level up," giving consumers a reason to keep playing until they've achieved the all important "prestige" status on, say, Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare3. Local businesses are offering rewards to the person with "mayor" status (the person who has checked in the most times at a single location) on Foursquare.
Even largely non-digital businesses like Vail Mountain Ski Resorts are using digital status mechanics through Epic Mix to encourage competition among visitors. Skiers runs are tracked automatically, and they can check their phones to see who had the most runs, the fastest times or the most vertical feet in any given day.
The virtual world is different from what we have known but, at least so far, it seems that marketers can still appeal successfully to people's desire for status just as we always have.