The quickest way for a business to fail on social media

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Brand Analyst | The White Matter Connecting Silos | Design Systems To Harvest Potential Energy Stored Within Organizations | Mantra: Passion Counts[/author_info] [/author]


The quickest way for business to fail at social media is to focus on the social network.  You’ll know you’re focusing on the network if your main goal is to get more followers or Likes on your page.


The trouble starts with the assumption that your number of followers is the same as an action they might take.  It would be nice if this were the case, but unfortunately this assumption is incorrect. Every follower is not following.  All friends are not fans.  Every connection is not connected.  Focusing exclusively on the social network fails because it wrongly assumes that followers will want to speak intimately with you and your company.


It’s true that customers will talk to you about something, and that something is a social object.


In the rest of this article, I’ll explain what social networks and social objects are, offer proof of concept using Facebook Edgerank and give a few examples of growing businesses using social objects.


The difference between objects and networks


There are two main schools of thought used to explain how social media and social networking work.


The first school of thought is the social network theory (SNT).  This school says that the success of social networks stems from the ties that bind two people.  In SNT, the simplest unit is the dyad.  The dyad is made by the ties between two nodes (actors or people).  A social network is merely a map of all the ties between people.  In Facebook terms, this is the social graph.  SNT suggests that the bigger your network, the more connected you are, the more people will see your updates and the more success you’ll have. Unfortunately, this assumption is not true.


While the SNT is good at describing the links between people, it falls short at describing what connects people.


Social network theory says that the ties between people matter most



The second school of thought is object-centred sociality (OCS).  Led by Jyri Engeström and Hugh MacLeod, this school says that the connections between people don’t matter nearly as much as the object that binds them. In OCS, the simplest unit is the triad.  The centre point of a triad is the social object which serves as a catalyst for connecting two people.  Social objects are the reason two or more people spend their attention with one another and not someone else.  OCS explains why we say to one another, “let’s … go for a coffee, grab a beer, watch the game or do lunch”.



The beach ball is the social object that connects these people



Engeström argues that social networks do not succeed because of the connections between people.  Rather, the connections between people from because they have something, a social object, to talk about. In his own words, Engeström says …


[box] “Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”[/box]


Facebook engineers agree


Engeström’s description of a social object from 2005 nearly perfectly describes Facebook Edgerank (aka Graphrank) created in 2011.  Engineers at Facebook recognized a problem.  Facebook users are over-connected to too many irrelevant people.  The result was a user’s wall full of irrelevant information and updates from a network of people who the user didn’t really interact with.  The constant stream of irrelevant information was degrading the user’s experience.  Edgerank was Facebook’s solution to improve their user’s experience.


In simple terms, Edgerank is a relevance filter.  Edgerank operates in the background of Facebook to filter out the irrelevant posts from people you don’t care about and only show you information from the people in your network you care most about.  While the real algorithm for Edgerank is a mystery, it seems to explain connections between two people by their interaction on a social object.  The more often, and recently, you and another person (or brand) comment, share, Like and interact on a social object, the more Facebook will populate your updates with their information.  In the end, you have a better Facebook experience because you’re wall is populated with more signals from people you care about and less noise from those you don’t.


Side note, there are rumours that Twitter will be coming out with their own version of Edgerank soon.


Social objects in business


In business, there are many advantages to invest creating value through social objects versus investing in building size of your social networks.


1. Social objects are not bound by borders created by social platforms.  A photo can migrate from email to Flickr to Facebook to Google+ to Broadcast TV.  This will become an increasingly important point as your customer’s attention fragments across the media landscape of networks and devices.


2. Social objects value both physical and digital interaction.  While online content marketing is a form of OCS, it does not offer a complete picture of the concept.  When you play a round of golf with a customer, you are using golf as the social object to get that customer to talk to you and not your competitor.  In outside sales, when you looks around a client’s office for a photo, book, map or chair to talk about, you are using a social object to break the ice and create a connection.


3. Social objects are the root of word of mouth marketing.  Your business might be a social object.  The act of running your business might be so interesting that people want to talk about it and share it with their friends.  Investing resources (time, people, money) to make your business more remarkable (literally worth talking about), is an investment to transform your business into a social object.




Hugh MacLeod’s hand drawn business cards are social objects. Click the photo to read a free copy of his latest book – The Art Of Not Sucking – also a social object.


Your company can become a social object. The act of running your business can give people reasons to talk about you. Wouldn’t you ask someone what this is about?


Thanks to Elise Kephart for reminding us it’s not what you do, but the way you do it that matters.


A quick way to turn your business into a social object


Can I help you? is a useless question asked by millions of retailers every day.  It’s useless because we all know the standard response and can predict the lost sales opportunity.  This question shows the value of a network over an object. The problem with this question is that people don’t connect to one another just because of their relationship.  People connect to one another because of an object.
Since we know that this question is useless, why not try a different question?


Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth Revisited, offers a better question. Instead of asking “Can I help you?”, try “Have you been here before?”.  Gerber suggests that by making this a permanent change in your approach to customers, you’ll be able to increase sales by 10-16% almost immediately.  I have no idea where he gets this data, but given the low risk, high reward potential it’s worth running a test in your own retail environment to find out if he’s right.


This simple change illustrates the shift from social network thinking to social object thinking.  The second question (have you been here before?) is an icebreaker because it turns the store into a social object.  It gives the pair something to talk about.


Think of your industry from your customer’s point of view.  Map out their journey from trigger to decision to returning advocate.  Then make social objects (and not push marketing messages) that create value for them along their journey.


What will you make? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your ideas.



Additional resources


Hugh MacLeod offers an elegant definition that a social object is the reason two people are talking to one another and not someone else.

The participatory Museum by Nina Simon

Stanford Professor Mark Granovetter wrote about the power of weak ties in his classic paper of the same name

In “What makes a good social object” Jyri Engeström explains that social objects have a gravitational pull.  The bigger it is the more attention it attracts. Felix Baumgartner and Redbull must have talked about this.

Stanley Milgram’s Small World Experiment the source of six degrees of separation.





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