Social Media Is About Cultivating Community, Not Corralling Cattle

In the Relationship Era, Sales Tactics Drive Consumers Away

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Were you ever in a public place and became aware that a guy nearby was frantically scribbling in a notebook, a disheveled lunatic madly writing as if the future of the world depended on his accumulated observations?

Yeah, that was me yesterday. Not being the curious onlooker. I was the lunatic.

I was scribbling notes in some documents prepared for client of mine -- never mind which -- by his agency partners, never mind whom. The documents were outlining social-media strategy. Here was one sentence that caught my eye: "Marketers are using social media to drive loyalty and repeat transactions." Then came the delineation of a three-point strategy, the first two points of which -- cultivating community and conversation -- made perfect sense in the obvious ways. Then came Point 3: "Convert conversations into transactions that support business objectives."

Cut to me in close-up: Scribbling, scribbling, scribbling like a madman. Because what I'd just read was so classically the mentality of unreconstructed Mad Men. Though designed to reassure clients about the efficacy of social marketing, it was terrible advice. (What you're now reading is a transcription, minus the blotted ink and spittle, of my own.)

Yes, we are all of us in business with transactions in mind. Yes, more transactions are almost always better than fewer transactions. Yes, we hope our social media efforts -- like everything else we do -- will be followed by more people purchasing our goods and services. Indeed, if you succeed in forging relationships with your various constituencies, and you are open and honest and share (i.e., in both directions) compelling and relevant stuff, loyalty and trust will grow and from that will flow more business at lowers acquisition costs.

But if you are cultivating community and conversation for the purpose of corralling cattle into the slaughterhouse, you are not engaging in a social strategy. You are engaging in a sales strategy, which is pretty close to the antithesis of social marketing. We are in the Relationship Era. This is no time for manipulation.

If you believe luring friends and confidants to your social space is the right way to set up a business relationship, why take half measures? Join Amway. Don’t forget the motivational tapes.

A second document prepared for my client proposed a content strategy, much of which was pretty much dead on. Yet it included a large component of content focusing not on the community, and not on the general concerns of the category, but on the brand itself. What its history is . How to use it. How special it is . Blah. Blah. Blah. You know what that stuff is called? It's called "advertising." Also, when it excessively dominates the conversation, "bad manners."

Welcome to our home! Please be our guest. Let's get to know one another. But first: Let us tell you how great we are. We are soooo great, in the following ways….

Sounds like a super fun evening.

When "The Human Element" finally emerges next year, my co-author Doug Levy and I will list the mounting evidence of the inverse relationship in the Relationship Era between brandedness and engagement. The harder you try to sell, the more you scare -- or simply bore -- people away. This central truth is not difficult for brands to understand, but for some reason it is hard for them to internalize and act upon. What is first required is to embrace social relationship-building not as the latest marketing fad, or even as a new reality that has been forced upon you, but as a means to revaluate who you are, what you stand for and why you are in business in the first place.

If the only answer is "more transactions," the future will not be kind to you. You may not wind up on a park bench filling notebooks, but you sure won't keep many friends.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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