Cracking the (Social) Code

We often hear how the media landscape is changing. But the most striking media development in recent years is really the one that makes us human, and that’s our deep-seated desire to organize and maintain relationships (or socialize).

Thanks to sites like Facebook and MySpace, consumers now experience the world through the company they keep — a very caveman-like concept. The fact that marketers are struggling with this shift is somewhat ironic. Great marketers have long known that social dynamics play a critical factor in brand and purchase decisions, and the key to success is becoming an ingrained part of the consumer conversation. Here are some ways how:

Step 1: Crack the code

Currently, advertising on a social-networking site is merely a bolt-on approach to the rise of social media. The approach doesn’t work. Traditional banner ads fail to tap the shift in consumer behavior and expectations of social relevancy. Going forward, your brand needs to turn everyday online ad inventory into valuable, strategic and compelling excuses for consumers to inject your brand into their digital conversations.

Cracking the code isn’t that hard. More than anything, it takes creative restraint. Create content that’s interesting, valuable or entertaining. Give people the ability to reinforce social bonds around that content. Make your content the “excuse” for people to ping their network — and make darn sure that the act of sharing builds social capital for everyone your content comes in contact with. Get it right, and your brand helps reinforce and strengthen connections between the people engaging in online conversations in which your brand is the catalyst. Observe what creative elements or process flows people find socially engaging. Test, test and test again. Don’t guess.

Of course, today’s banner formats (rich media or otherwise) aren’t exactly wired for the task outlined above. But this will change in the coming years. It’s a matter of time before media buys start leveraging the power of social networks over the confines of social networking sites.

Step 2: Identify the social dynamics

From a marketing perspective, social dynamics can be broken down into four key elements: people, purpose, participation and exploration.

First, identify what type of person holds social capital important to your brand. Mothers. Experts. Hipsters. Geeks. Trusted friends. Next, explore what motivates people to put their social capital at risk. Do this, and you can unlock tremendous value and brand potential. Self-expression, entertainment, deals, value, humor and ego are great places to start.

Also, it’s not social if it’s between your brand and a consumer. Trusted friends need to be in the mix. Successful brands present consumers with experiences that surface social capital and facilitate its transfer in credible, human ways.

Use targeted media buys to give consumers “velvet-rope” access to great content, offers or entertainment. Delight these consumers with something of value. Enable them to leverage your offering in ways that can build goodwill among their network of connections. With a little testing (and some creative restraint), you’ll be able to tap the power of trusted referrals, highly qualified personal introductions and endorsements ranging from subtle to raging.

Step 3: Rethink your creative

The banner ad will celebrate its 15th birthday in 2009 — let’s work fast and furiously to put its awkward teenage years behind us. The targeting, the infrastructure, the technology and a liquid marketplace are all there, making the banner ripe for social-media innovation.

But these changes require rethinking our approach. Creative must be developed for and live in the context of a socially connected world. The concept of 1:1 marketing (between a brand and its consumers) feels shockingly dated in our brave new media landscape. The future of advertising will be shaped around a new mantra: 1:1:n marketing.

In this world, for example, brands must enable choosy moms (who once chose Jif) to start a cascade of social capital transfer around the best toothpaste for toddlers. They must make it easy for the 100 million Americans who know someone getting married to be the “last mile” in helping brands target these couple — and to catalyze that dynamic. And they must institutionalize the intensely social decision-making process around movie selection and attendance to owning the lifecycle from trailer to opening weekend through DVD release.

The banner ad is a powerful delivery vehicle for social media experiences. If we rethink the role of the banner as it relates to brand advertising in the world of the socially connected consumer, things start getting very interesting. Facebook has made some strides with its Social Ads and Engagement Ads products, but they’re proprietary. This is the right intent, but it incorporates limited execution and reach. Walled gardens didn’t work for AOL. If your answer to social media is a publisher-proprietary buy, you’re limiting the scope, reach and potential the real social-media opportunity represents.

The dynamics of this shift in consumer behavior are far bigger than Facebook or MySpace. Advertisers are likely to reject proprietary ad formats that are publisher-dependent, instead opting for innovative ways to marry reach with relevance through carefully re-crafted creative that taps the power of social dynamics. That is a rewiring that will pay enormous brand dividends.

Jim Calhoun, CEO of PopularMedia, can be contacted at jim@popularmedia.com