As a business, if you are using social media, you are assuming that you will have the opportunity to grow your online community, promote your brand, and ultimately, of course, you are hoping you will be able to grow your business and increase sales. For several years now, social media has been described as a sort of enhanced telephone that enables companies to meet, understand, and network with customers, prospects, and even competitors. What these descriptions have not taken into account, however, is that people may be using social media in ways that could not have been easily foretold even five years ago. This has ramifications not only for businesses but for individuals as well.
Companionship Versus Products
Recently I’ve started to read a book called Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle. I am utterly fascinated by this book and am not even a third of the way through. In this first section of the book, Turkle talks about how humans relate to robots intended to mimic living beings (otherwise known as Artificial Intelligence or AI). Turkle starts by describing a computerized program called ELIZA, which was programmed to answer questions based on programmed responses to certain keywords. She notes that people began by asking ELIZA silly questions, but then something odd happened. After only a short time, people started talking to ELIZA almost like it was a psychologist. They started confiding in the program, asking it how to handle being dumped or how to deal with grief after losing a loved one. Even though some part of their brains knew that ELIZA was not really a person, these people suspended disbelief, if you will, and began treating ELIZA more like a confidante.
It does not take much of a leap to see how talking to people on social media platforms could easily create the same sense of companionship, except in the case of communicating online, you really are talking to other human beings. However, you could be talking online to a person who lives on the other side of the world. The people you are talking to probably have no vested interest in your family or your workplace. Like a robot or a computerized program, people in the world of social media are real enough to confide in but distant enough to be able to end the conversation abruptly or ignore you whenever they want.
It does not seem too far fetched to hypothesize that people may start looking to social media, if they have not already, to access the kind of affection, care, support, and attention they may feel is lacking from their own lives. If they are looking for love online, does your company have a chance of reaching people?
Maybe the answer is not humanizing your brand
If people are viewing their social media connections as surrogate friends or even family members, is building a community, conversing, or creating meaningful connections really what your company needs to do? After all, becoming an online BFF to your customers is not really your mission statement. You want to create loyalty amongst your customers, but taking their confessionals is territory most companies probably do not want to explore. Perhaps early advice about humanizing our brands is expiring in its usefulness. Maybe we don’t want to humanize our brands too much. It muddies the water. It confuses people who may think of us as friends rather than people who are trying to sell a product or service. Maybe the new transparency, the new authenticity for companies is to immediately self-identify as an entity that wants to sell things. While people are looking for love and friendship they may see your message in passing, just as a television commercial may catch our attention while we are hanging out with friends.
If social media is creating robots where humans should exist, we are ourselves entering unchartered territory. We are connecting yet not connecting with real people. We are looking for approval, affection, and attention but then we can turn off our computers when we get tired of people. How companies choose to navigate this new kind of relationship will be a very important decision. Is it even a space where companies will be able to thrive?
What do you think of these potential scenarios? What are you seeing? We’d love to hear from you!
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/doug88888/6112129146/ via Creative Commons