In a few short years, social networking has become integral to the lives of many. If one is to use Facebook’s statistics, globally the number is nearing 700 million; Africa stands at about 30 million while Kenya stands at just over one million users. To zoom in Kenya the million Facebook users represent the most influential and economically able section of the population. This number continues to grow especially as access to the Internet’s tool of choice, the mobile phone, makes astronomical inroads even in areas considered remote. A recent research by InMobi showed that the Internet is accessed mostly on ordinary mobile phones, not necessarily smart phones. Brands are slowly but surely becoming aware of this fact and beginning to find ways of selling to this audience. You will find brand all over social networks such as Facebook, Hi5, MySpace, Tagged, Bebo, MyYearbook and BlackPlanet. This act of brands considering those on social networks as consumers first is what signals what will be the beginning of the end for social networking as we know it today.
What is social networking?
Social networking is basically taking advantage of new media technologies such as the Internet and mobile telephony networks to carry out virtual social interaction. It has the advantages of ubiquity in so far as one is able to connect and socialize virtually as long as the technology is available between the two parties. This trumps traditional social interaction or networking that was necessarily carried out only when the parties involved in the social process were in the same geographical location. For those who may frown upon social networking would do well to be reminded that only physiological and safety needs rank above social needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, making social needs extremely powerful. Brands are not oblivious to this fact, hence their invasion of social networks. Are they doing it right? Do they have a right to do so? Are they welcome in this space or are they considered an unwanted invading force? We explore these questions below.
The Unwritten Code
Most societies have an unwritten code on how social interaction is carried out. There is etiquette on what is permitted and what is not. With the invasion of new media, new laws have to be “written” to accommodate the new modes of interaction but even as these codes get incorporated, the basics tend to remain the same. One of the prime unwritten rules is that in social interactions, talking business and more so, direct selling of products and services is frowned upon. People attend social functions partly to get away from work and the haggling that business and work life can often become. People want light conversations, humour and do not want to deal with the work life they are escaping from at that time.
Let us now answer the questions posed above. Are they doing it right? Mostly not. Do they have a right to do so? Yes and no. Are they welcome in this space or are they considered an unwanted invading force? Many are considered unwelcome, mostly due to their “invasive” approach. These answers probably give rise to the ultimate question, why? Some answers, which are more of food for thought and probably the basis for some authoritative research, are below.
You Don’t sell at a Social Cocktail
Don’t get me wrong. There is a difference between introducing a colleague as the best management consultant, resulting in her being called up to do some work later and straight up going up to strangers at a cocktail to blurt out a direct pitch. The first is acceptable in a social setting while the second is frowned upon and even pains the professional as desperate or even uncouth.
Brands are used to “talking at”, not “talking with” consumers
Brands, if Naomi Klein of the “No Logo” fame is to be believed are today’s big bullies. She does have a point when one examines how many brands communicate. They have the money, the influence and somehow, the authority to get up on a rather high pedestal and talk at consumers. They will tell consumers how to think, what to feel, what lifestyle to adopt and ultimately what products and services to buy at what frequency and price. Many will not bother to listen probably mumbling to themselves that “the consumer is always right when they agree to what we say”. Fast forward to a social networking or social media setting and we find a big disconnect. The newly empowered consumer becomes potentially as much a transmitter or broadcaster of messages as that big, sometimes obnoxious brand. She is able to both talk and talk back in the manner she sees fit. The brand no longer dominates the communication and is now forced into the unfamiliar territory of “talking with” consumers. As many brands find this “talking with” consumers not really their kind of diet, they will continue to “talk at” consumers, resulting in an unsavory social space that will result in participants in the social network either refusing to interact with this brands or even totally abandoning those social networks that are dominated by brands propagating their old media mannerisms on new media platforms.
People will not play second fiddle, not any more
In cannot be overstated that the human being is largely a social being. The human being wants to be considered a person first; anything else is secondary. A large part of social interaction is marked by give and take in a manner that all parties involved generally feel there is a fair exchange. Brands, and the bigger they get the more they experience this imbalance, tend to behave as though they are “more equal” than the people they are interacting with. Brands therefore find themselves appearing to be “using” or “taking advantage” of consumers due to their sheer size, influence or financial muscle. This could have worked and been accepted in the past but now we are talking about brands in a social space where people will all want to assert themselves to varying degrees depending on their personalities. The point is that people will probably resist attempts to muddy their social space by making them play second fiddle to commercial interests of brands.
The Way Forward
As much as brands have been able to find their way into virtually every sphere of our lives, it is not true that they are absolutely welcome. The consumer still wishes to be seen as more than just a consumer because before they were consumers, they were social beings. The advancing army of brands invading the social space that is become more and more scarce as life gets more hectic is likely to meet a resisting force that will defend the social space with every weapon in its arsenal, including voting with “a click of a button” to avoid spaces that are proliferated by brands. As more consumers vote with their “click of a button” as is currently happening in Europe and the United States, social networking as we know it is likely to take a dive or even die, forcing consumers to revert to the normal person to person social interaction that has gone on for centuries. The more things change, the more they stay the same.