By Tina Cordes
Ensuring brands build bridges, rather than burn them, as technology leads us towards disparate extremes of connection and disconnection
It feels good to belong. To be among people you like, respect and feel connected to. And while brands are not people, they’re no different. They want to be liked, respected and have people connect with them. After all, brands are made up of a group of people steering the ship. And those people want to belong to something larger than themselves. I mean…who doesn’t?
CONNECTION VS DISCONNECTION
In the online world, belonging has evolved quickly. With early tools like IRC and LISTSERVS, people shared and consumed information. And with early online communities like Flickr and MySpace, people were able to have real-time interactions with groups and individuals. We started proactively posting photos, checking-in to favorite restaurants, sharing political articles. And then the passive interactions: liking and commenting on photos, resharing the articles that resonate, reviewing a restaurant after a great service experience. And connection is only getting easier — “interaction” is a simple Like and “talking” can be done VIA emojis.
But there’s a conflict. Because disconnection is easy too. We block ex-boyfriends on Facebook or turn our Instagram private after the birth of a child. We quickly swipe left on Tinder or ‘ghost’ someone completely, leaving a chain of unread and unanswered texts. We can become outraged when a good deed goes “viral” and no one knows what to do. Like when a Georgian homeless teen was caught up in an online battle over GoFundMe money donated to his education. The anonymity of the Internet can make connection feel impersonal, make people feel detached. And so they act accordingly — from name calling and taunting to straight up trolling.
THE ROLE OF BRANDS
Which is where brands come in — in this netherworld between connection and disconnection, swinging chaotically between the two.
On the one hand, some brands can tend towards disconnection. They broadcasting a mask of anonymity across their digital ecosystem. These are the inside-out brands that focus solely on delivering business messages to a wide audience — what we might try to call “1:1 interactions at scale”. But they’re trying and sometimes floundering and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
They speak without listening, pumping out content they want us to consume rather than what we want. Like Victoria Secret promoting their new bralette line by assuredly declaring “No padding is sexy now”, much to the annoyance of women who need or want padding and completely contrary to their previous campaigns.
They convince social platforms to work better for brands than for real people (I’m looking at you Facebook and Instagram). Or buy up existing communities (likely for the mother lode of data they offer) while crossing their fingers that the transition goes smoothly for the members of that community. Like Adobe’s purchase of Behance, or Random House acquiring Figment, or Amazon getting their hands on Goodreads. I’m crossing my fingers too, especially as a long-time Goodreads member.
There are brands that have succeeded at making connections. They exist authentically online. And by “authentic” I don’t mean that they only have our best interests in mind, or they’re acting purely altruistically. I mean that they do all the things brands do – sell things, talk about themselves, and ask for data – in an honest and mutual fashion. There’s no wizard hiding behind the curtain. And by being open and providing something in return, brands can connect more meaningfully.
These are the outside-in brands that provide useful services for their customers to do something they know they love, like Nike+ and the running and training communities. Or to do something they know they don’t love, like H+R Block partnering with Airbnb to help hosts figure out how to file their taxes, or Lowe’s producing the most useful Vines, Fix in Six.
They tell their brand and product stories in ways that entertain and excite us. I ran home from the gym to watch Felix Baumgartner jump from the stratosphere above the New Mexico desert, because that’s the type of thing that only Red Bull could pull off. Full disclosure, I cried when he landed, safe and sound.
They give us what we want and need: helpful tips, coupons, early VIP access, exclusive content, and membership perks. Sephora has generated a loyal following by listening, reacting and surprising their community with everything they could want when it comes to makeup and beauty products.
CONNECTION IS HUMAN
It doesn’t matter if it’s on a social channel, at an experiential event, or for an integrated campaign, brands connect more meaningfully when they listen first and speak later. With the demographic and psychographic data that brands have access to, as well as advanced social listening tools, hearing what people have to say can come easily. We need to turn down the noise and make sure we’re listening to the right things that will help uncover a human truth.
Speaking is when it becomes more complicated because connecting on a human level always is. We have to ensure that brand KPIs and long-term visions work alongside (rather than against) a point of real, authentic connection. That’s how we lose the mask of anonymity and ensure brands swing away from disconnection and towards true connection.