duff-manDigital has profoundly changed our ability to share and spread the word on things we care about. The democratization of influence is such an important cultural force that its ultimate impact is nigh on unpredictable. We know it will be huge, but as to how huge and how it will alter the human order, we haven’t the foggiest idea.

Progressive brands have been relatively quick to jump on this band wagon. Hundreds of brands have attracted huge numbers of followers by tapping into the human desire to be a part of something they care about.

Yet the interaction and participation rates in most brand social programs are abysmal. Which means we need to ask why there is such a drop-off in consumer excitement between the moment they sign up and how they feel in ensuing weeks and months.

I think one of the big reasons is that in most cases, it’s the brands themselves that are credited with the commentary delivered in service of their businesses. People don’t want to talk with brands, they want to connect with people.

Would you choose to try to have a conversation with your tomato paste? Your PC? Your smart phone? Of course not. Even if these items could speak with us, we probably wouldn’t be much interested in what they have to say.

The appeal of social is rooted in authenticity and personal experience. The idea that a real person is sharing their thoughts and ideas with you. When a brand speaks, its authenticity and motives are naturally suspect. For a half dozen reasons:

  1. Brands aren’t people. They are business entities with a single objective: maximizing profit. There is no personality or complexity to such an objective. Only a single minded focus on delivering revenue.
  2. Brand speech is and feels vetted and milquetoasted. Since most major brands are owned by multibillion dollar multinational companies, the messages issued on their behalf must be carefully constructed and scrutinized. The operating principle in such a process is to offend no one, and ultimately therefore to say very little that is controversial.
  3. Brands have communication objectives. Well, I suppose people do as well. But whereas most person to person speech is centered around opinion and a quest for the truth, brand speech revolves around benefit messaging and copy points. Not exactly a riveting read, at least in general.
  4. Brand speech sounds corporate. Whether written by PR agencies, ad agencies, or internal teams, the “sound” of brand speech is generally hollow and formal. Like reading the collected works of Enver Hoxha.
  5. Brand speech is anything but candid. When people write about brands, their comments are often laden with immediacy and emotion. But because emotion is slippery territory for brands, most brand social teams fob off emotional commentary with throwaway lines like “Please know that we take your concerns very seriously.”
  6. Brand speech is often disconnected from the brand. When companies outsource brand speech, even the tenuous connection between a brand’s “authenticity” and what is said in social venues is suspect. Outsourcers are by their very nature very conservative exponents of a POV. Agencies generally don’t get fired for boring speech – they DO get fired every day for saying interesting things that put a stake in the ground about a topic or issue.

In my view, brands need to rethink the desire to have a brand “speak” on its own behalf. Instead, brand messages should be delivered by real, on the record people. Whether employees, or endorsers, or self identified evangelists, the folks that deliver information about a brand, and at brand expense, need to have the credibility that comes from authenticity, candidness, and passion. Recognizing that brands must be careful about what they say, it’s important that we start promoting real individuals as brand representatives – people who express their own POVs as part of a larger effort to involve users in the strength and future of brands.

About Jim Nichols

Jim Nichols is Senior Partner - Strategy at Catalyst S+F, a marketing services company based in San Francisco. Surrounded by so many youthful Internet marketers every day, he fancies himself at 47 the "Oldest Living Digital Marketer." He keeps a daily blog profiling start-ups for ad:tech, is a is a frequent contributor to iMediaConnection, and has also contributed to ReadWriteWeb, Venturebeat, Brand Channel, MediaBizBloggers, and Daisy Whitney’s New Media Minute. You can also find him on Twitter @CatalystaJim


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